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,, 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.

Why now?

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.