Sneezing, itching nose, watery eyes — it's the common cold, right?
Maybe not. While seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis are typically associated with a younger crowd it is not unheard of for allergists to see older adults dealing with allergy symptoms for the first time, says Michael Foggs, a Chicago-based allergist and spokesman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). But allergies do not have to slow you down.
So how do you know if you have a cold or are battling allergies?
Foggs says if symptoms persist for more than six weeks it is time to find a board certified allergist. Also, the ACAAI website, acaai.org, offers an Allergy & Asthma Relief Self Test to help review symptoms and see where to find relief, a suffering calculator and a tool to help find a board certified allergist. While a primary care physician has an understanding of allergies, an allergist can dig deeper.
While allergies may seem like an annoyance and not necessitating a visit to a specialist, Foggs says it is important to have an allergist assess the situation because there can be another illness masquerading as allergies. An allergist can determine if it is an allergy, non-allergic rhinitis, multiple chemical sensitivity or rule out allergy, Foggs says. Also, in the case of non-allergic rhinitis, Foggs says, a primary care doctor may prescribe an antihistamine, but it won't solve the problem of inflammation of the tissue.
Foggs says there are a variety of reasons an older adult may be experiencing allergies later in life.
One, he says, is that some had allergies in early childhood that went into remission and can resurface.
Adult onset expression of allergy can also be related to changes in the body as people age. The body hosts defense mechanisms in the immune system and they can change.
Karen Braswell, an exercise physiologist at Smith Crossing, a senior living community in Orland Park, says seasonal allergies are a common medical problem in older adults during spring, summer and fall.
"Seasonal allergies impact older adults in many ways. A major impact is seniors who take multiple daily medications may face side effects of taking these drugs along with allergy relief medications," Braswell says. "The antihistamines in most allergy medications can cause drowsiness and dizziness, which pose additional risks for older adults."
While more prevalent in children, allergies can impact anyone.
"Any one at any age can have allergies," Foggs says. "Older adults become more likely to have conditions co-exist with allergies."
Conditions such as congestive heart failure, bronchiolitis — an inflammation of the smallest air passages in the lungs (the bronchioles) — and sleep apnea can aggravate allergies and make a person sick, he says.
Allergies have been making more headlines since early in the year because this has been a bad allergy season. "Allergy is increasing world wide," Foggs says.
He says there are several hypotheses being analyzed as to why there are more people suffering from allergies such as inadequate stimulation of the immune system, use of antibiotics in animals used for food, ingredients in processed foods and inadequate levels of vitamin D.
Anju Peters, associate professor of medicine in the Sinus and Allergy Center At Northwestern University, says weather has an impact on allergies and a warm winter made for a bad allergy season in the spring. She says the hot summer and occasional downpours this summer leave a question mark about what to expect with ragweed and mold in the fall.
Going to an allergist
A trip to the allergist is not unlike a visit to other doctors. Foggs says first time patients can expect a conversation with the doctor regarding medical history and a physical exam.
"With a thorough history often a well trained allergist will have a diagnosis before the exam takes place," Foggs says.
The exam will include looking at the ears, eyes and any areas that may be related to a diagnosis.
Peters says depending on the patient they may do a skin test. This involves putting a small amount of the allergen on the skin and doing a minor pinprick. The allergist can determine allergy based on the skin's reaction. While there are many possible allergens she says they usually can narrow it down and test for a series of common allergens such as pollen, ragweed or dust.
Another approach is a traditional blood test, but the results will take time.
What can be done?
Foggs says the approach depends on the allergy. In some cases the patient is instructed to avoid the allergic agents to decrease the burden of allergy at their home and workplace.
Allergists can prescribe medications and there are nasal steroid sprays that are very safe and effective, Peters says.
In many cases it is only necessary to visit an allergist once to determine the cause of the allergy.
"We only continue to manage difficult cases," Foggs says.
For some persistent allergies, Foggs says, they may prescribe shots to build tolerance.
Peters cautions older adults about over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestion medications. She says they have side effects such as fatigue and dryness and in some cases can make the heart race. They also can interact with other medications, she says.
Allergies and some of the antihistamines taken for them can make people feel run down and groggy, but a diagnosis of allergies doesn't mean one is relegated to the couch during nice weather.
Braswell says the most important thing is to check with the doctor to make sure it is safe to exercise.
"It is challenging to exercise with seasonal allergies due to congestion, itching, and other symptoms of allergies," Braswell acknowledges. "A major precaution to take is to exercise indoors. You can avoid much pollen and therefore the symptoms of seasonal allergies if you choose an exercise routine indoors."
Peters says whenever possible she recommends exercise.
"You shouldn't let allergies limit your quality of life," she says.
Braswell says if you want to get moving outdoors there are precautions to take.
"Carefully choose times when you are exercising outside. You should make efforts to stay indoors during peak pollen times of 5 to 10 a.m. You may also feel fewer symptoms if you exercise outdoors after rain."
Braswell suggests avoiding outdoor exercise during hot, dry, windy days when pollens, molds, and dust tend to be at their highest.
"Exercise is important for everyone even those suffering from allergies," says Braswell. "While a regular routine will not cure your allergies, it can help you feel better. By keeping the heart and lungs strengthened allergy sufferers will truly benefit."Copyright © 2015, CT Now