From pollen to peanuts to shellfish, many seemingly innocuous things in our environment can set off an allergic reaction.
While we most often hear about allergies appearing in children, those same immune responses can emerge during adulthood, too. Adult-onset allergies — including food allergies — can be disruptive, to say the least. If you’re diagnosed with an allergy to a specific food, whether minor or life-threatening, you’ll have to reconsider the way you cook, eat out, travel and socialize.
Plenty of newly allergic adults have no experience with food allergy management. Here’s what you need to know to avoid a potentially serious allergic reaction.
What Causes Adult-Onset Allergies?
Food allergies occur when your body’s immune system has an abnormal response to a food or an environmental substance — such as pet dander, pollen or mold — you’ve come into contact with.
During an allergic reaction, you may have symptoms ranging in severity from hives, itching, swelling of the mouth or eyes and low blood pressure to anaphylactic shock, a potentially life-threatening reaction that causes chest tightness, swelling of the throat, trouble breathing and vomiting.
What triggers an allergy? The most common suspects are seafood, peanuts and tree nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and cashews. Recent research indicates that nearly half of American adults with food allergies developed at least one after the age of 18. Although researchers don’t really know what causes adult allergies, people with allergies to medication, a history of multiple food allergies or hay fever are more likely to have adult allergies. Women and older people also are more susceptible.
If you suspect you might have developed a new allergy in adulthood, it’s important to take steps to avoid potential triggers and keep yourself safe.
How to Deal With an Adult-Onset Allergy
Adult-onset allergies seem to come out of nowhere. You’re indulging in a food you’ve had dozens of times in the past when without warning your meal betrays you: Suddenly, you’re having a reaction that requires either medication or, worse, a trip to the ER.
Confirm any allergy concerns with an allergy specialist. They’ll probably advise you to get tested — allergies are evaluated by exposing some part of you, usually either your blood or skin, to different allergens to see if any of them provokes a reaction.
Once you’ve pinned down what your allergens are, the safest bet is simply to avoid them. If you have a shellfish allergy, you might want to exchange your annual family seafood potluck for a barbecue. Keep in mind, too, that it may not be enough to pick the shrimp out of your linguine. Dishes that contain allergens can set off a reaction, even in small amounts. Everyone is different, so until you get a sense of what your limits are, it’s better to stay on the safe side.
Of course, accidental exposures do happen. In the event you unknowingly eat something that contains small amounts of your allergen, your allergy specialist will recommend that you carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times. The injector is prefilled with a single dose of epinephrine. Injected into the middle of the outer thigh as an emergency treatment, this medicine treats the signs of anaphylaxis. It’s only a temporary solution, though, so go to the ER right away to seek further treatment after administering the medication. In cases of a mild allergic reaction like hives or itchy eyes, it’s also a good idea to have an antihistamine, like Benadryl, readily available.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for adult-onset allergies. Though there have been cases of people outgrowing allergies that emerged during childhood, there’s less research on whether someone who develops an allergy in adulthood can wait it out.
Take the time you need to mourn your favorite peanut ice cream, but don’t try to fight through the pain — it’s best to practice proper food allergy management and avoid whatever causes your immune system to riot. Let your server know about your food allergy before you order. Ask the host of the cookout about the ingredients in specific dishes before you sample them. Read food labels thoroughly at the grocery store. Adult-onset allergies can force you to make significant lifestyle changes, but it’s a sacrifice worth making to avoid an allergic reaction that could jeopardize your health or land you in the hospital.