Living With Allergies

Yes, You Can Develop Allergies as an Adult

A person facing away from the camera leaning their head against a door in frustration or sadness.
Photo by Grant Spanier via Death to Stock

Your eyes are itchy. Your nose is somehow runny and stuffy at the same time. Your throat feels scratchy. You’re convinced you picked up a common cold, but then your friend says, “Maybe it’s allergies.”

Allergies? No way. That can’t be. You’ve never had them before. Why would you have them now? Can they really just show up announced like this later in life?

Believe it or not, developing allergies in adulthood isn’t as rare as you might think.

Can you develop allergies as an adult?

Here’s the short answer: yes. While it’s more common for allergies to show up when you’re a kid (an estimated 40% of children have at least one allergy, compared to 30% of adults), it’s entirely possible for them to crop up later in life.

But of course, allergies can differ from person to person—and the Cleveland Clinic explains that they can also shift through different phases in your life.

Some people who dealt with an allergy through their adolescence might notice that their symptoms are actually far more manageable in adulthood, which could be a result of a weakened immune system that doesn’t respond as harshly to common allergens.

In fact, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center reports that many teenagers and adults are lucky enough to outgrow their allergies entirely—especially when it comes to food. An estimated 80% of people with egg, milk, and wheat allergies outgrow them by age 16.

Unfortunately, others aren’t so lucky and go the opposite way. They might develop an allergy to something that never seemed to bother them before.

What causes adult onset allergies?

Alright, so developing allergies in adulthood can happen. But why? Why is your immune system suddenly turning against you?

Well, nobody really knows. Chalk it up as one of many medical mysteries.

What experts do know is that the biological response behind your allergies is still the same: Your immune system detects an allergen, thinks it’s harmful, and then reacts by releasing histamine. That’s the chemical that causes all of your dreaded allergy symptoms.

But, as far as why your body would suddenly respond this way later in your life? That cause isn’t as clear.

“Most people are exposed to most of the [allergens] over their entire life,” says allergist Kevin McGrath, MD. “So why does it suddenly turn on? If we understood exactly what turned it on, we could probably turn it off. That would be the holy grail of allergy.”

With that said, experts have identified a few potential causes of unexpected allergies in adults.

Climate change

Yep, you read that right. Add allergies to the long list of negative impacts of climate change.

As the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America explains, “Rising temperatures caused by climate change lead to longer allergy seasons and worsen air quality. Long allergy seasons can cause more allergies and asthma attacks.”

Your body might not have previously had a severe immune response to a common allergen, because the peak allergy season passed quickly. But, now that your exposure is more prolonged and persistent, it can trigger more inflammation—and, as a result, adult onset allergies.

Working from home

From wearing your sweatpants to not having to overhear your coworker’s many phone conversations, working from home definitely has its perks. But, the bad news is that it can actually bring on adult allergies.

Why? Well, for starters, we’re willing to bet that your home isn’t cleaned as often or as thoroughly as a typical office. That means you’re likely dealing with increased exposure to common allergy triggers like mold and dust mites.

Things could be even worse if you have a loyal, furry companion by your side. Pet dander can bring on allergy symptoms too. And, now that you’re around Fido more than ever, you could notice increased or potentially even new allergic reactions.

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Moving to a new city

Finally, if you’ve recently relocated, your new digs could be the culprit behind your stuffy nose and watery eyes.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology explains that things like pollen, mold, and grasses can differ from place to place. So, moving means you might be exposed to an entirely new set of allergy triggers that you’ve never dealt with before.

Can allergies get worse with age?

Unfortunately, no matter what caused them, you’re probably stuck with your adult-onset allergies for now. And the bad news doesn’t stop there: Your symptoms might get progressively worse as you age. Why? Well, scientists aren’t completely sure, but it could be for many of the same reasons your allergy suddenly popped up in the first place.

Remember those longer allergy seasons caused by climate change? That doesn’t just cause new symptoms, but also ensure that you’ll be feeling them for a longer period of time each year. And hopping from place to place, especially from a less polluted area to a more polluted one (say, from a quiet rural area to a crowded city) can worsen existing allergies just as easily as it can provoke new ones. Other lifestyle choices like having kids are also thought to worsen allergies, because kids tend to catch colds and spread them to their parents, and having a cold makes allergic episodes worse.

There is one silver lining to all this: It’s possible to build tolerance to your triggers and even outgrow allergies as you age. In fact, many people experience relief from allergy symptoms once they hit their 60s, because your immune system weakens with age (and so does its ability to make you miserable).

How to treat adult onset allergies

You’ve realized you could be dealing with adult allergies, and that they may only get worse. Now what?

We’ll admit that this isn’t a fun surprise to deal with, but rest assured that there are things you can do to be proactive and manage your symptoms.

Your best bet is to take an antihistamine. This will reduce your body’s production of histamine, which can make a big difference in the severity of your allergies. Along with that, there are a number of other treatments you can use to get some relief, including:

Not sure what’s right for you? Take our short quiz and we’ll recommend a personalized Allergy Pack with the right medications for you.

Adult allergies don’t have to be so miserable

Like anything, adulthood has its perks and its drawbacks. But, you probably didn’t expect to add “adult allergies” to the list of negatives of growing up.

As it turns out, developing an allergy as you get older isn’t all that rare. That’s not all bad news, because it means there are tons of medications and treatment options that can help you reduce or even prevent your symptoms.

So, if you think your itching and sneezing is actually related to allergies, now’s the time to take action and get the relief you deserve. After all, one of the many advantages of adulthood is being able to take control over your own health.

And if you're not quite sure? Take our quick quiz to find out if your symptoms sound more like they could be allergies, COVID-19, or the common cold. Just be sure to speak with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or questions.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BY
Amina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPH
Picnic Medical Director
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