No one wants to join the itchy eyes, scratchy throat and congestion club. But if you’re one of the many people who develops allergies as an adult, you’re not alone.

First, some facts. Roughly 50 million Americans experience some form of allergic disease, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 

For many, these allergies continue a pattern that began years ago. But even people who have never had problems can have allergies as adults.

What Are Allergies?

How do allergies happen? It has to do with your immune system and how it fends off invaders such as viruses and bacteria.

An allergy occurs when your immune system determines a trigger, like pollen, is dangerous. Your body sends chemicals to your cells to defend them against the attack. While these mighty defenders can stop a serious illness, they may also cause an allergic reaction.

Things you encounter every day can trigger an allergic reaction:

  • Pollen from weeds, grass, flowers and trees
  • Mold
  • Pet dander
  • Dust mites

It’s easy to mistake the symptoms of allergic rhinitis for a cold. Itchiness is one clue that an allergy might be the real cause. Symptoms that last for more than two weeks can also be a sign you may have an allergy.


Why Me?

Researchers are studying why some people develop allergies and others get away sneeze-free. Here are a few things that may increase the odds of you developing allergies.

Allergies: The sequel. While kids prone to allergies may grow into adults prone to allergies, the problem can change. For example, a toddler with food allergies and eczema may develop hay fever as a young adult. And another child’s allergies may cause asthma symptoms later in life.

Here, there and everywhere. The potential triggers around you also affect your allergy risk. Getting a dog or cat might set off a pet allergy. Moving into a new home might bring you into contact with allergy-causing mold. Traveling to or living in another part of the country might expose you to a new set of sneeze-inducing pollens.

Allergic to work? You also might run into trouble at work. Some common workplace problems include cleaning products, chemical fumes and some types of dust. If your allergy symptoms start or get worse on the job, work with your doctor to find a solution.

What Can I Do?

The most common allergy symptoms — congestion, sneezing and sniffling — can usually be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines or other medicines.

Some of us also get patches of red, inflamed skin called dermatitis or eczema as a reaction to an allergen. OTC cortisone skin creams and cotton clothing can help calm skin reactions.

These OTC drugs can improve your quality of life by halting the immune system battle. If one of them doesn’t work, another might.

If your symptoms linger, your doctor may suggest a different OTC medicine than what you’ve tried or a prescription medicine. Your doctor may have you try steroids, decongestants or even a combination of therapies. They can even help you find out what causes your allergies and suggest ways to avoid it.

Allergy shots might be an option if your allergies are severe and nothing else seems to help. They work like a vaccine, slowly reducing your symptoms by steadily raising your tolerance to an allergen. The good news: Many people — even those with severe allergies — don’t have to get allergy shots forever. In fact, a program of routine allergy shots for three to five years will often do the trick.

While allergies can make you feel bad at any age, one of these treatment options may be all you need to start feeling better again.