For SELF, by Amy Marturana.
As a kid, I really resented the fact that we couldn’t get a cat or dog. Both my mom and brother were really allergic. We also did things like close the windows in the summer when people were cutting their grass, and eventually, got a fake Christmas tree. Seasonal allergies and pet allergies were abundant in our household. Even our guinea pigs (as close as we got to legit pets) were secretly giving my mom allergy problems for years — something we didn’t even realize until those obnoxious little buggers left us for a better place and she suddenly could breathe normally again. But I was always safe from the sniffling and sneezing.
So imagine my surprise when, about three years ago, I realized damn, I have allergies. My nose and eyes get insanely itchy when the seasons are changing (early spring and fall). And spending some time with a friend’s dog will leave me scratching my eyes out for the next 12 hours. Sure, I always sneezed a little more in the beginning of spring like many people, but I never had real allergies that had to be treated. And I dreamed of the day I could move out and finally get a dog — my dad even told me he’d buy it for me when that day came.
What gives? How did this happen? And WHY ME? Well, as it turns out, developing allergies as an adult is extremely common. And there’s really no way to know if it’ll happen to you.
Well, as it turns out, developing allergies as an adult is extremely common. And there’s really no way to know if it’ll happen to you.
There are a few reasons you may get allergies later in life — some you can control, and others, you really can’t.
Allergies happen when our bodies start to recognize a harmless thing, like pollen or animal dander, as a threat. Our immune systems react and release chemicals, such as histamines, to fight the “intruder.” These chemicals also cause symptoms that we know as allergies — sneezing, itching, hives, and swelling, to name a few.
My family history of allergies may be partly to blame, experts told me. “Even just having one parent with allergies puts you at higher risk of having allergies later in life,” Purvi Parikh, M.D., an adult and pediatric allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells SELF. Then, there’s an environmental factor. “In recent years, climate change has led to soaring pollen counts,” Neeta Ogden, M.D., board-certified allergist, tells SELF. “Allergies are almost inevitable, because the exposure is just so high now.”
Sometimes having pets can cause allergies over time. “Sometimes frequent exposure to an allergen will make you more allergic to it,” Dr. Parikh says. “We’ve seen the opposite, too, people with these animals become tolerant to it. We have no good way of predicting who will become allergic to a dog and who won’t.” You may also be allergic to what a cat or dog is carrying, like dust mites or mold, so those environmental allergies may be what makes you sneeze when you cuddle up with a furball.
There’s also a theory that our society is just becoming more allergic because we’re too clean.
It’s called the hygiene hypothesis, Dr. Parikh says. “We’re not exposed to soil and dirt [as often], so our immune systems aren’t getting exposed to the good bacteria that [help] protect us from getting allergies,” she explains. Over time, the theory goes, we’ve become so sterile that our bodies aren’t learning how to fight off threatening bacteria, which kind of throws our immune responses out of whack. Our bodies now see any “intruder” as a threat, and we end up with a whole list of allergies.
Dr. Parikh says allergists advocate for parents to let their kids get a little dirty. “You don’t have to disinfect a pacifier every time it falls on the ground because some of those germs are good in development for protecting against allergies,” she explains.
Where you live can also impact whether or not you develop allergies.
I wanted to know: Did moving to New York City four years ago do something to my body and bring on the allergy plague? The answer is probably. “NYC, in particular, is in the top 100 worst cities list for allergies in the country,” released by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Dr. Odgen says. Good to know. This seems counterintuitive to me because, well, there’s very little nature along the city streets.
But there’s plenty of pollution! “People that live in cities are ironically more likely or develop allergies,” Dr. Parikh says. “The reason is because if you’re in a city or area closer to more highways, the air quality actually makes your lungs and nose more sensitive.” She says that in NYC, there’s a higher level of ozone (aka pollution) than in other places. “Because of that we have much higher rates of allergies and asthma in the city instead of outside. Most of my patients feel so much better when they leave the city.”
Dr. Parikh also says it won’t happen overnight, but it’s certainly possible within a year or two of moving to a new city. “The immune system needs to see something a few times before deciding it doesn’t like it and it’s allergic to it.” She also says my story is common — a lot of people who move to NYC end up developing allergies.
You’re less likely to develop a food allergy later in life, but it happens.
“New onset food allergies in adults are much less common,” Dr. Ogden says. The most common allergies? Shellfish and fish. The potential causes are the same as above — probably a combination of genetic tendency, environmental exposure, and just a stroke of bad luck.
The hygiene hypothesis may play a role here, too, Dr. Parikh notes. Processed foods disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut, she says. Research suggests that when the gut microbiome is thrown off, it can interfere with our immune responses. Some studies have even shown that rebalancing the bacterial environment in the gut could prevent serious allergic reactions.
If you think you’ve developed an allergy, you shouldn’t keep it to yourself.
What to do: Go see an allergist and find out for sure. What not to do: Just say, “Ugh, I have allergies, woe is me,” like I do. The reason? There are different treatments, and one over-the-counter medication might not work as well as the next. You also may not even be allergic to what you think you’re allergic to.
I take Zyrtec every day during peak allergy season, but Dr. Parikh says different medicines work differently for people, though no one really knows why. If you constantly suffer from allergies, allergy shots may be a good option. “Shots desensitize you, so in the long run, for some people they cure allergies. But for most people, they just make you less allergic so you stop having reactions,” Dr. Parikh explains.
I’d like to avoid shots at all costs, but if I want a dog, there may be an ultimatum — Dr. Parikh says patients who want pets despite allergies can make it happen this way. But before I get ahead of myself, I guess it’s officially time to make an appointment to find out what I’m actually allergic to — something I should have done about three years ago.
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