Treating Allergies After 65

By Laurie Tarkan |

Whether you’re dealing with seasonal, food, or medication allergies, you may need to handle them differently as you get older.

Older woman sneezing from allergies for a story on treating allergies after age 65

Itchy skin. Watery eyes. Sneezing. Allergy season and its pesky symptoms can put a damper on your day. Or maybe you feel fine during that time of year but certain foods cause symptoms. This can make you weary of heading to restaurants or ordering takeout. Luckily, there are ways you can treat your allergies and worry less about what problems they’ll cause.

An allergy is your immune system’s way of fighting off unknown substances, which are called allergens. You may have heard that allergies go away with age. While this is true, it doesn’t mean they go away completely.

The rates of allergies in people over 65 are not that different from younger adults. Over 20% percent of U.S. adults over age 65 have seasonal allergies like hay fever. And over 4% of adults have a food allergy.

Some people even develop new allergies later in life. These might include:

  • Dust
  • Grass
  • Medications like penicillin
  • Shellfish

Many times, these allergic reactions are less severe later in life. This is because the immune system gets weaker as you get older, says Richard Lockey, M.D. He is a professor of allergy and immunology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. If the immune system is responsible for allergies, it makes sense that these problems are not as extreme in older adults, he adds.

But allergy symptoms can still be bothersome. And you may need treatment no matter how old you are. Here’s what older adults need to know about treating common types of allergies.

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Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies are also known as hay fever. They can cause symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing and itchy red eyes. You might notice these more when you’re outside or if you have your windows open.

Most older adults can take a medication called antihistamines to treat these symptoms. Antihistamines stop a chemical called histamine from affecting your body, which is the cause of your allergic reaction. You can buy these medications over the counter (OTC) at your local pharmacy.

But always talk to your doctor before starting a new medication. There are certain antihistamines older adults should avoid. These include a medication called “first-generation” antihistamines. They can lead to side effects like drowsiness, anxiety, confusion and dry mouth. They may also cause trouble urinating in men with enlarged prostates, says Sandra Gawchik, D.O. She is the codirector of allergy clinical immunology at the Crozer Chester Medical Center in Upland, Pennsylvania.

Avoid medications that say, “drowsiness may occur,” on the label. These normally include:

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
  • Doxylamine (Nyquil)

Instead, stick with “second-generation” antihistamines. They are often safer because they don’t cause side effects like drowsiness. They are available over the counter at your local pharmacy and are usually taken every day during allergy season.

Some examples are:

  • Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • Desloratadine (Clarinex)
  • Fexofenadine (Allegra)
  • Loratadine (Claritin)

Antihistamines also come as eye drops (Zaditor, Patinol) to help red, itchy eyes. And they come as nasal sprays (Azelastine, Patanase) for congestion.

Many older adults tend to take more medications due to chronic health conditions. And some of these medications can interact with each other and cause problems. So it’s important to tell your doctor everything you take. For example, if you take heart medication, your doctor may tell you not to take decongestants. This mixture can affect your heart rate and blood pressure, says Dr. Gawchik.

To stay safe, bring a complete list of all your prescriptions and over the counter drugs to every doctor’s appointment, she adds. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor or pharmacist to review all your medications at least once a year, as well as whenever you’re prescribed a new medication.

Recommended reading: 5 Questions You Should Ask Your Pharmacist

Food Allergies

It’s not uncommon to get a food allergy later in life, even if you’ve never had one before. The most common food allergy in adults is shellfish. (Think shrimp, crab, and lobster.)

In fact, about 60% of shellfish allergies begin in adulthood. It may cause hives and red skin. But you can also get more serious symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency where your body goes into shock.

The best treatment for a food allergy is to avoid the specific food that you’re allergic to. If you’re out to eat or ordering takeout, always tell the waiter or the person taking your order that you have a food allergy. Some ingredients in dishes might not be listed on the menu.

People with food allergies should carry epinephrine (Epi-Pen). This medication can immediately stop an allergic reaction.

“One of the most common misconceptions among people and physicians is that an Epi-Pen is not safe,” says Dr. Lockey. “It’s extraordinarily safe. What’s not safe is not using it,” he says.

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Drug Allergies

Allergies to medications, like penicillin, may become more common with age. This is because older adults tend to take more medications and are likely using the same ones frequently, says Dr. Lockey.

Let your doctor know of any drug allergy so it’s included on your medical records. This will let other doctors know not to give you that medication.

However, it’s possible you might no longer have a drug allergy. For example, if it’s been years since you had a mild reaction to penicillin, you can ask your doctor if it’s time to be retested.

What to Know About Immunotherapy for Allergies

If your allergies bother you every day, ask your doctor about immunotherapy. This treatment helps your body slowly start to handle the allergen. And it can help to weaken any allergic reactions.

Your doctor or allergist will give you tiny doses of the allergen over a few months. This is usually in the form of shots or tablets. The doses are slowly increased, until you can handle the allergen without having a reaction. Historical studies have shown that older adults can respond well to this treatment.

Bottom line: If you have an allergic reaction, see a healthcare provider. They can help figure out what you’re allergic to or if you have another illness with similar symptoms.

See our sources:
Allergy statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Antihistamines: Cleveland Clinic
Shellfish statistic: Food Allergy Research and Education
Shellfish: Cleveland Clinic
Drug allergies: Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
Immunotherapy: Clinical and Molecular Allergy

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