WebMD: Why do I suddenly have allergies?

Why Do I Suddenly Have Allergies?

By Barbara Brody, Reviewed by Luqman Seidu, MD on July 07, 2015

You used to feel great when you spent time outdoors. Lately, though, things have changed. When you take a spring walk in the park, rake leaves in the fall, or even just open your windows for some fresh air, you have symptoms you’ve never had before.

Could it really be allergies at your age?

Seasonal allergies aren't just for kids. They can crop up at any time in your life.

Allergies have become much more common over the past 50 years, and experts believe that the number of adults who get allergies for the first time is on the rise.

"I'm seeing it more and more in my practice," says Neil Jain, MD, an allergist who practices in Gilbert and Phoenix, AZ. While most people are diagnosed between age 10 and 20, he's seen many people in their 20s, 30s, and even decades older that say allergies are a new thing for them.  

"I'm always skeptical when people in their 50s or 60s say they're having problems all of a sudden," Jain says. But, he says, tests show that many of them do have allergies.

Why would someone who never had allergies before start to be bothered by tree pollen, freshly cut grass, or ragweed? At least four likely reasons come quickly to mind.

1. Pollen levels are on the rise.

If your brother or sister has allergies, you may get them too. When that might happen depends on your environment.

One theory is that your body has a threshold, meaning that you can be exposed to an allergen up to a certain level and not notice your immune system is working hard to fight it. Once you cross that threshold, though, your body’s defensive efforts become noticeable.

For example, you might get a runny nose. That’s your body’s way of flushing out the allergen.

Since pollen counts have risen in recent decades, more people have reached the point at which they notice they have symptoms.

2. You've moved across the country.

A change of address can mean a change in the type of allergens around you. You might have always been allergic to something, but didn’t know it. You never had a reaction because you hadn’t been exposed to that something.

Another possibility is that you went from a place that had low levels of a particular allergen to a place where it's plentiful. James Sublett, MD, is president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. He says, "A move -- say, from Michigan to North Carolina -- may result in a longer season and more exposure to seasonal allergens like grass or tree pollens."

3. You catch a cold at the wrong time. 

Some research shows that viral infections can lead to allergies.

"Certain viruses can sort of get your immune system going," Jain says. "If this happens at the wrong time and you're exposed to pollen at the wrong time, it might turn on the genes that are tied to allergies."

You don't need to contract a rare disease for that switch to be flipped. The rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, could be enough to kick start the process.

4. You're around a lot of pollution. 

While the particles in the air might irritate you, that's only part of the problem.

Pollen in very polluted areas may produce greater amounts of proteins that cause allergic reactions.

Air pollution might also help pollen particles scatter through the air. That makes them easier to inhale. 

If you think you have allergies, try to figure out what you are allergic to so you can avoid it. It’s OK to talk to your pharmacist about which over-the-counter medicine may work for you. But if you need more help, follow up with your doctor or see an allergist for testing, Jain says.

If you have moderate or severe allergies, you should also consider immunotherapy, Sublett says. This treatment involves getting allergy shots (or taking tablets) that include a tiny bit of an allergen so that your body eventually becomes less sensitive to it.

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