Signs and Symptoms of Allergies

Jul 12, 2016

Signs and Symptoms of Allergies

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It’s reported that allergies affect over 50 million adults in the United States. Whether it be a result of seasonal “hay fever” caused by allergens like pollen or mold, or adverse reactions to food or drugs, allergies are a widespread condition.

Many believe that allergies are only an issue that children and younger adults face, however, this is far from the truth. As the elderly population continues to grow, it’s projected that 20% of the population will consist of people over 65.

Considering that around 5-10% of the senior citizen population is currently affected by allergic diseases, learning how to approach allergies in old age is as important as ever.

Differences in Allergies By Age

Of course, there are many similarities to the expression of allergies in younger people, seniors face their own unique symptoms when dealing with these conditions, ranging from mere annoyances to medical emergencies.

As a result of immunosenescence, or the aging of one’s immune system, seniors are likely to experience a change in the way their bodies handle offending allergens, as well as certain foods and drugs.

Generally, elderly immune systems mean an increased susceptibility to infection difficulties with autoimmunity, and a decreased response to vaccinations as well as wound healing. When it comes to the common allergic exacerbations of pollen, mold, or pet dander, the elderly body is at a disadvantage in protecting itself against these substances.

Symptoms of Allergies in Elderly Adults


The inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose. Common symptoms include:

  • Itchy nose, throat, eyes, ears, and roof of the mouth
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes


The long-lasting inflammation of the sinuses behind the cheek bones, around the eyes and behind the nose. Symptoms include:

  • Postnasal drip
  • Pressure in the face
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Persistent cough
  • Congestion
  • Yellow, green, or gray nasal discharge 

Cutaneous (Skin) Allergies

Most commonly expressed as itching, the development of rashes, and similar types of discomfort. The main skin conditions that arise from allergies include eczema, angioedema, and other forms of allergic contact dermatitis. Symptoms of these conditions can appear as:

  • Rashes
  • Inflamed, scaly, and itchy skin
  • Swelling in sensitive areas below the skin
  • Dry skin
  • Blisters

Food Allergies

Due to changing immune system responses, elderly people can still develop late-onset food allergies. Most of the time, older adults will be affected by these common foods:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts

Common symptoms of a food allergy include:

  • Red, itchy rashes
  • Congested and/or itchy noses
  • Watery eyes
  • Vomiting and intestinal discomfort
  • Angioedema
  • Swelling 


This is another symptom of food allergies that can be dangerous given the severity and the level of exposure to the allergen. Signs that someone might be experiencing anaphylaxis include:

  • Wheezing, trouble breathing and tightness in the chest
  • Tingling sensations in limbs or face
  • Hoarseness or tightness in the throat

Anaphylaxis can also be caused by insect bites as the body’s immune system overreacts to the venom. People can experience these symptoms due to bites or stings from yellow jackets, honeybees, paper wasps, hornets, and even fire ants.

For people who have extreme and life-threatening reactions to certain foods or insect bites, it is generally advised that auto-injectable epinephrine should be carried at all times.

The same factors can also cause a development of drug allergies, which are observed 2 to 3 times more frequently in seniors than adult patients 30 years and younger. Unfortunately, it is estimated that adverse drug reactions are responsible for up to 10% of hospital admissions in older patients. The most common drugs that cause adverse reactions in the senior population include:

  • Betalactam
  • Non-steroidal antihistamines
  • Quinolone
  • Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole
  • Nitrofurantoin
  • Heparin
  • Neuromuscular blocking agents
  • Anti-epileptics
  • Chemotherapeutic agents
  • Monoclonal antibodies
  • Immunosuppressive drugs

When dealing with allergies in older adults, it’s important to isolate the symptoms of other pre-existing conditions and others than may be brought on by offending allergens. Considering allergies can arise simply from combining the wrong medications, always check with your doctor before adding a new pill or supplement to your regimen.

Just because you’ve never had allergies in the past, doesn’t mean they can’t develop in retirement. Getting routine checkup can reveal the changes in your immune system or other factors in order to help you plan your treatments against all of those pesky allergens!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do allergies get worse with age?

Seasonal allergies do tend to get worse with age, mostly because of the fact that our immune systems tend to break down. This means that seniors are likely to experience a change in the way their bodies handle allergens. As you get older, it's harder for your body to protect itself from common allergens.

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How can allergies in seniors be treated?

You can treat allergies for seniors in different ways, however, the most common methods of treatment include:

Antihistamines: These are the mainstay in the treatment of allergies, especially for younger people. First-generation antihistamines like chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine are generally effective in reducing sneezing, itching, and rhinorrhea. It may be necessary to avoid traditional antihistamines as well, given that they can cause confusion, drowsiness, urinary retention, dry mouth, and eyes, as well as dizziness.

Decongestants: These are used to reduce nasal swelling, which in turn relieves congestion. The most common used agent is pseudoephedrine, however, it does have the potential to stimulate the nervous system to produce side effects like anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and palpitations. It’s usually recommended that elderly patients, especially those with hypertension, coronary artery disease, cerebral vascular disease, or bladder conditions, avoid decongestants.

Anti-Inflammatory Nasal Sprays: Most of these medications are safe for older adults to use. For most people, these agents are effective in reducing sneezing, itching, congestion, and rhinorrhea with very minimal side effects.

Immunotherapy: Essentially, patients are injected with extremely small amounts of an allergen, eventually increasing the dosage to develop a resistance. These “allergy shots” are an effective long-term treatment that decreases the symptoms of rhinitis, asthma, conjunctivitis, or even insect stings.

See All Answers »

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