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Changing Allergies in Older Adults

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Allergies are one of those things that seem to occur at the worst of times, when you’re enjoying a sunny day or trying new foods. Sometimes you’re born with allergies so you can plan ahead and know what to avoid. This isn’t always the case: did you know your relationship with foods and irritants can change as you age?

“Allergies often get worse as we get older. Mild allergies can become very irritating and require new medications or changes to current medications for relief. We can also develop allergies as we age that we did not have when we were younger,” said Melissa Powers, WSL Resident Care Manager.

This blog specifies different allergens, which symptoms to look out for and what to do in the event that you have an allergic reaction. It is important to get familiar with this information because as our bodies change, so can our allergies.

Different Types of Allergies and Their Symptoms:

  • Seasonal or Environmental Allergies: Symptoms can include sneezing, itchy nose, eyes, and roof of mouth, runny and stuffy nose, and watery, red swollen eyes.
    • New England is a beautiful place to live, but it is no stranger to pollen, poison ivy, and other irritants that come with the territory. The range in seasons, various weather patterns, and native plants, makes it easy to say it is common to experience these symptoms either consistently or seasonally.
  • Food allergies: Symptoms can include tingling in the mouth, swelling of the lips and tongue, hives, and sometimes anaphylaxis.
    • Although allergies in children are predominantly studied, you can always gain new allergies throughout your life including as a senior. Being aware of food allergies like gluten, dairy, etc. are more important as we age due to our body’s vulnerability, lack of immunity and defensive response. “Aging causes anatomical changes and a decline in the functioning of multiple organs, including the following: gut, skin, respiratory system, immune system. People in this age group also tend to develop more chronic — or long-term — conditions, which may influence their response to an allergen.”
  • Bug Bites: Symptoms can include swelling at site, itching, hives, wheezing, shortness of breath, and anaphylaxis.
    • This could range from the typical itchy mosquito bite, to being severely allergic to bees…
  • Drug Allergy: Symptoms can include hives, itchy skin, rash, facial swelling wheezing, and anaphylaxis.
    • Having a drug allergy can be serious if unknown or treated improperly. “Because older people take three times as many medications as younger people… they tend to have more frequent allergic reactions. The chances of developing an allergy to a medication are higher when you take it frequently or when a medication is rubbed onto the skin or given by injection rather than taken by mouth.”
  • Topical Skin Reaction (Dermatitis): Symptoms can include itchiness, redness, peeling and flaking of the skin.
    • As we grow older our body changes; Our skin can become thinner, drier, and more delicate. Things you have been using for years like laundry detergent can start irritating your skin. Be careful when treating these reactions; “Do not apply anything to topical rashes unless directed to do so by a medical professional. Some over the counter creams and ointments can make rashes worse if they are not the right ones,” said Powers.

What To Do in Case of a Reaction:

We always say, “It’s better to play it safe!” Visit a healthcare professional if you feel like you are having any of the previously listed symptoms and suspect it could be a reaction to an allergen. It is worth seeking medical attention, especially if it is causing you discomfort.

Allergy testing can either be done by blood sample or by a skin test. There are benefits to receiving these tests. If this is something you’re interested in, contact your healthcare provider for more information.

WSL takes this seriously and encourages residents to let the clinical team know if something is bothering them. “If you have a severe allergy to something alert staff and let them know. The nurse will help you with obtaining urgent care,” Powers explains to WSL Residents.

This goes for small reactions as well, or even if a resident is questioning what the cause of their symptoms may be. “If residents are not sure if they are having cold symptoms or allergies, they should ask the nursing staff so they can help determine what they need to do to feel better.”

Although allergies can be common, they don’t have to be something that stops seniors from having a high-quality life. If seniors know what to look for, understand how to ask for help, and are aware of their options in preventing reactions, they are that much safer going about their typical day to day lives and activities.