While most seniors look forward to the more pleasant weather that marks the beginning of spring, others dread this enjoyable climate as it comes with a price in the form of seasonal allergies. As the pollen level rises, you often hear people say they have hay fever, which is another term for seasonal allergies. A seasonal allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts to an outdoor allergen, such as pollen, dust or cold. Even if you have never experienced seasonal allergies before, it is wrong to assume you are immune to them. Allergies in seniors can be unrecognized or under-diagnosed since doctors often think the symptoms are minor issues and instead focus more on concerns such as high blood pressure, the AARP states.
Allergy is an inflammatory condition that can have a greater impact on seniors than in the younger population due to age-related changes in their immune systems. Doctors state that the prevalence of adult-onset allergies in the United States is increasing. One theory is that repeated exposure to certain allergies can increase sensitivity over time, rather than decrease it as many might assume.
Causes of seasonal allergies in seniors
As a result of the aging of one’s immune system, seniors are likely to experience a change in the way their bodies handle offending allergens. Elderly immune systems mean increased susceptibility to infection and a decreased response to vaccinations. Thus when it comes to the common allergic exacerbations of pollen, the senior’s body is at a disadvantage in protecting itself against these substances.
A seasonal allergy happens when your immune system identifies a harmless airborne substance as dangerous and responds by releasing histamines and other chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals thus produce the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Know the symptoms
The diagnosis of allergies in old people is very much important. Otherwise, overlooking the signs of allergies can heighten the risk of stroke. There are several symptoms associated with affliction by seasonal allergies. These include;
- Itchy sinuses, throat or ear canals
- Stuffy or postnasal drainage
- Watery eyes
- Aches and pain
- Sleep disturbance
- Fatigue and weakness
- Dark circles under your eyes
The timing and severity of an allergy season vary across the country, with climatic factors influencing how bad the symptoms may be:
- On a day with no wind, airborne allergens are grounded
- Molds grow quicker in places with high heat and humidity
- Pollen levels peak in the morning hours
- Tree pollens and grass pollens tend to thrive during cool nights and warm days
- When the day is windy and warm, pollen counts surge
Know the common seasonal allergy triggers
In many areas of the United States, spring allergies usually begin in February and may last until the early summer. Tree pollination begins earliest in the year then followed by grass pollination later in the spring and summer and ragweed in the late summer and fall. On the other hand, in areas with tropical climates, grass may pollinate throughout a good portion of the year. In times of mild winter temperatures, plants pollinate early.
A rainy spring scenario can also promote rapid plant growth and lead to an increase in mold thus causing seasonal allergies symptoms to last well into the fall. Ragweed is a plant that grows wild almost everywhere but mostly in the Midwest and on the East coast of the United States. It blooms and releases pollen from August to November, with pollen levels highest in early to mid-September. Whilst ‘seasonal allergies’ generally refers to grass, mold, and pollen, there also exists a different group of triggers that are closely tied to particular seasons. Among them:
- Candy ingredients, during the seasons of Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s day
- Pine trees and wreaths, during thanksgiving and Christmas
- Smoke, during campfires in summer, fireplaces in winter
- Insect bites and stings, usually in spring and summer
There exist some factors that can increase your risk of developing seasonal allergies. These include:
- Having atopic dermatitis (eczema)
- Having a blood relative such as a parent, with allergies or asthma
- Having other allergies or asthma
- If your mother smoked during your first year of life
- Working or living in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens
Diagnosing seasonal allergies
If you have allergic symptoms that only occur at certain times of the year, it’s a sign that you have a seasonal allergy. But to find out if you have an allergy, you might want to visit an allergist. The allergist will ask you about your medical history and symptoms, before moving on to a physical exam and conducting the allergy test. Your doctor may also check your ears, nose, and throat to make a diagnosis. They may as well perform a skin or blood allergy test. But most allergists prefer skin testing as it is the standard practice and tends to be the most accurate. A blood test may be ordered where medication is interfering with the interpretation of the test or in the case of severe skin rashes.
Complications of allergy in elderly
Having an allergy in elderly age increases the risk of certain medical problems, including;
- Asthma; if you have an allergy, you are more likely to have asthma. In many cases, this is triggered by exposure to an allergen in the environment. Asthma is an immune system reaction that affects the airwaves and breathing (allergy-induced asthma).
- Anaphylaxis; This is a serious allergy-induced reaction that comes as a result of severe allergies.
- Sinusitis and infections of the ears and lungs.
Seasonal allergy prevention, management, and treatment
Caregivers, friends, and family can take action now to prevent symptoms of seasonal allergies from slowing the senior down. Noting that some symptoms can lead to more serious illnesses, including ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and sinus infections. Regardless if allergies are familiar to you or something you are experiencing for the first time, the following tips can go a long way to get you through allergy season more smoothly;
- Keep an eye on pollen levels. There exist several free services that will also alert you when pollen counts reach high levels. These include Pollen.com and the Weather Channel. That can help you plan outings for days when pollen counts are projected to be lowest.
- Nutrition. Nutritionists believe that by eating foods known to fight inflammation, the seniors can decrease some of the allergy symptoms. These foods include ginger, leafy greens, walnuts, apples and anything high in Vitamin C.
- Protective clothing. Wear sunglasses when you are outside. This can prevent pollen and other seasonal irritants from getting into your eyes. A hat can also prevent pollen from getting into your hair and working its way onto your hands and clothing.
- Use air conditioning. It is sometimes difficult to convince a senior who may not be hot to use an air conditioner. Keeping the windows closed would help to prevent pollens and molds from entering the house.
- Have a steamy hot shower. Taking a hot shower can open up the nasal passage which would help you breathe more comfortably. Adding effervescent vapor tablets to the shower brings more relief.
- Don’t hang clothes outside to dry. Instead, hang them indoors to dry or use the clothes dryer. Unfortunately, if you leave your clothes outside to dry on a line they can soak up pollen, ragweed and other airborne allergens like a sponge.
- Wash your hands after being outdoors. Wash your hands and make sure to shower as well as soon as you come in from working or spending any significant amount of time outside. Immediately throw into the laundry all the clothes that you were wearing to prevent pollen from being spread around the house.
- Avoid traditional antihistamines. Antihistamines commonly prescribed to treat allergies can be dangerous to seniors with their potential side effects being urinary retention, drowsiness, confusion, dry mouth, and eyes as well as dizziness. For the seniors suffering from seasonal allergies, a doctor will likely prescribe a nasal steroid or some form of a topical medication.
- Look for allergy signs. Try and learn what triggers your senior’s allergies and avoid the trigger.
- Purchase an air purifier. Use an air purifier where your loved senior has allergies to things that are inside the home. A high-quality air purifier can help to limit their exposure.
- Keep an eye out for irritating chemicals in the home. Some cleaning chemicals may bring about allergy symptoms especially when they come in contact with their skin such as laundry detergent on their clothes. These should be replaced as soon as possible.
- Dust and vacuum. Proper cleaning of the home is particularly important in terms of staving off allergies therefore dusting and vacuuming should be done daily and when your loved senior isn’t around to ensure they are not exposed to what is floating in the air.
- Try natural allergy busters. This includes regular exercise and breathing fresh air. But just ensure not to do the latter during the pollen season.
- Get a good night’s sleep. When your body is under attack, it needs all the recovery time it can get.
- Avoidance is a good way to prevent some allergies. For instance, if a senior is allergic to dust, they should wash their sheets and use mattress covers to reduce exposure to dust mites.
- Avoid stress. The final form of prevention is to reduce stress. While it may sound unrelated, stress could exacerbate allergy symptoms and also weaken the immune system.
- Decongestants. Decongestants are used to reduce nasal swelling, which in turn relieves congestion. The most commonly used agent is pseudoephedrine.
- Rinse sinuses. Rinsing nasal passages with saline solution is a quick, inexpensive and effective way to relieve nasal congestion. Rinsing directly flushes out mucus and allergens from the nose.
- Anti-inflammatory nasal sprays. Most of these medications are safe for seniors and are effective in reducing congestion, itching, and sneezing with very minimal side effects.
- Immunotherapy and emergency options. Where the available medications are generally ineffective or the risks are too high for elderly patients, another treatment option is immunotherapy. In this treatment, patients are injected with extremely small amounts of an allergen eventually increasing the dosage to develop resistance. These allergy shots are an effective long-term treatment that decreases the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Furthermore, it would be good for seniors who experience extreme reactions to allergies to carry auto-injectable epinephrine. These handy devices can be used to prevent severe allergic reactions for seniors, which can be a major medical emergency if left unattended to.
Seniors need not suffer alone with seasonal allergies. The family physician can treat infrequent allergies. However, if there are long-lasting, debilitating symptoms, seek relief by scheduling an appointment with a board-certified allergist. There are many new types of treatments for seasonal allergy symptoms in seniors that have been developed specifically for seniors. Plus, where the senior is living in an assisted living community, they can ask for assistance in managing their medication to make the allergy season a comfortable one.
Older adults can develop allergies for the first time, so do not ignore the symptoms if they persist longer than a cold or other illness should. Allergies can place an elderly person with pre-existing cardiac or lung disease at significant risk. For that reason, your awareness and proactive care can make a big difference so don’t hesitate when it comes to getting them the allergy relief they need. The symptoms of seasonal allergies can be uncomfortable. It is always good to constantly check on a senior’s home and routine for safety and ensure that no pesky allergens are present. Taking steps to prevent an older adult’s seasonal discomfort can also help the isolation and depression that often occur where they are stuck inside, hiding from the outside world.
If an older patient is suspected of having seasonal allergies, a doctor should be consulted to help diagnose the cause of the symptoms and prescribe a treatment plan. They will likely encourage you to take steps such as, to avoid your allergy triggers, and undergoing an allergy test. This is because, while most over the counter allergy medicines are very safe for seniors, others might aggravate existing medical problems or cause more serious ones. Most allergy treatments contain antihistamines, and when paired with other medications can cause drowsiness, high blood pressure, and dizziness. These can challenge a senior’s health increasing fall risks and chances of other injuries.