Wilson Kimball was 40 years old when she found herself in the emergency room vomiting and suffering a severe migraine. Doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause, so after several days of testing, they released Kimball. On the way home, she stopped at her favorite deli and ordered tuna salad, made the Italian way with oil and vinegar instead of mayonnaise. The vomiting immediately returned, but this time Kimball was able to help doctors figure out the culprit: An allergy to the mold in vinegar.
“I was shocked that I could get it at this age,” says Kimball, commissioner of planning and economic development for the City of Yonkers. “I was also a little depressed when I realized what it meant. Vinegar is in everything, so I could no longer have ketchup with my fries, which was my favorite thing in the world.”
Adult-onset allergies are on the rise, and it’s not just the seasonal kind causing Americans to sneeze and sniffle through record pollen counts this year. Doctors are seeing an increase in all kinds of environmental and food allergies — from ragweed pollen to shrimp to a preservative you’ll find in shampoos, hand soaps and lotions. Combined, they afflict nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
“When I started out practicing 20 years ago, I wasn’t seeing this kind of late-onset allergies in adults. Now I’m seeing patients in their 50s and 60s,” says New York City allergist Clifford Bassett, MD, author of The New Allergy Solution: Supercharge Resistance, Slash Medication, Stop Suffering. “You can tolerate something your whole life, and then your body will suddenly react. Something that’s usually harmless — like peanuts, cat dander, molds or spores — is now seen as the enemy. The immune system is unpredictable.”
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Inside the Adult Allergy Epidemic: A Perfect Storm
“You could be allergic to 80,000 chemicals that have not been tested for how they affect humans.”
Researchers aren’t sure why an adult might one day develop allergic symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose or itchy, watery eyes, after eating a peanut butter cup at the movies when she’s loved them her entire life. (Note: Food allergies are different from food intolerances, which cause digestive ills, such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.) “Was it because of some life event? Was there an infection? A change of behavior? There are a lot of questions we need answers to,” says Paul Bryce, PhD, who studies allergies at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Food allergies are estimated to affect five percent of adults and eight percent of kids. Bryce was part of the team that reviewed more than 1,100 cases of food allergies and found that, on average, adult patients were in their early 30s. The top allergens: shellfish, tree nuts, fish, soy and peanuts.
Although the reason for a mid-life rejection of lobster rolls might remain a mystery, the culprits of other allergies are clearer. Scientists blame climate change for the pollen rise, and we’re exposed to more toxic chemicals, pesticides and synthetic fragrances. “You could be allergic to 80,000 chemicals that have not been tested for how they affect humans,” says Bassett. He also blames over-cleaning for the surge in symptoms. In other words, the sterile Pine-Sol-ed homes of our youth didn’t challenge our immune systems enough to protect us later. There are even reports of allergic reactions to the metals nickel and cobalt found in cell phones.
You’re also at greater risk for developing seasonal and food allergies if you’re a woman or have a family history, according to research. It’s not clear why women’s hormones play a role. But Bassett notes that women’s collective lifetime usage of beauty products have pushed their environmental tolerances to the brink.
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Diagnosing Adult-Onset Allergies: Process of Elimination
If your allergies are due to the spring pollen invasion, they should eventually improve. “But if people feel like they’ve been having a cold that lasts longer than a week, they should see an allergist to make sure it’s not seasonal,” says Reenal Patel, MD, of Allergy Asthma Care of New York. She explains that some people with tree pollen allergies might be more susceptible to food allergies. So the seasonal symptoms could be a clue that something else is going on.
Traditionally, an allergy specialist will conduct a skin prick test that deposits a small amount of up to 60 kinds of allergens under the skin of your arm. If you’re allergic to any of them, a reaction quickly shows up as a red bump indicating the presence of an allergy antibody. Doctors often use blood tests as a backup. Or, there’s patch testing. For this method, a dermatologist applies a series of allergens to your back to see if a reaction develops over several days. Detecting food allergies gets trickier, though, and might involve you eating the suspected food in a clinic in what’s called a food challenge.
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Finding Relief: A Holistic Approach
Treatment options range from taking drugstore antihistamine medications to nasal steroid and antihistamine sprays to immunotherapy that gradually re-introduces allergens to patients. But Bassett believes we’ll suffer less if we take a more holistic approach. “Stress affects the immune system, so we need to focus on proactive preventative measures,” he says. Among his suggestions: getting enough vitamin D, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and getting enough sleep and exercise.
In the meantime, Bryce says we need more research to understand the emotional impact of new allergy diagnoses on adults. “There’s so much focus on food allergies for kids, but we think that a 50-year-old deserves just as much attention,” says Bryce. In fact, his Northwestern team is starting a new study about how food allergies affect adults’ quality of life.
For Kimball, it meant coming to terms with the long list of vinegar-containing foods she could no longer eat: salsa, mustard, mayonnaise, balsamic reduction on her Brussels sprouts. “It might be easier to develop them as a kid because as an adult, you realize all that you’ve lost. You know how good these foods are,” says Kimball. “It’s ridiculous, I know. But your whole world changes.”