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Adult onset asthma: Beware of springtime triggers for seniors

Springtime pollen allergies can be a serious cause for concern for the people who live with them. 

On top of the pain and discomfort that come with a pollen allergy - the coughing, itchy and sneezing - these irritations can lead to more severe respiratory conditions. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that allergies trigger at least 30 percent of all new cases of adult onset asthma. If not treated properly, the organization warns that asthma can be a significant health risk for adults over the age of 65. 

What you need to know about allergies for seniors
While "allergy season" may differ for people, depending on what they're allergic to, spring tends to yield the strongest reactions for most. Tree pollen, especially from birch or cedar varieties, is a common irritant for people across the country and peaks in the springtime. While those with mold or grass allergies could be more effected in the summer or fall. The AAFA estimates that as many as 50 million people in the U.S. live with seasonal nasal allergies. 

Allergies can set in at any age. A person could be allergy free for decades and then develop painful hay fever in their 50s or 60s. According to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, people are more likely to develop allergies when their immune systems are compromised. Immune systems often grow weaker with age, making seniors vulnerable to developing new allergic reactions. 

When adults get allergies for the first time, they may mistake the symptoms for a cold. Signs of allergies include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Itchiness, especially of the eyes, mouth and skin.
  • Sinus congestion.
  • Fatigue.

If symptoms crop up during the spring when trees start sprouting leaves and blooms and last for several days or weeks at a time, you're likely looking at a pollen allergy. It's best to consult a doctor if you suspect your loved one may have allergies so the condition can be properly diagnosed. This way, you can be sure you aren't overlooking an illness that mimics allergies and you can get the best treatment for your loved one. Most of the time, over-the-counter medications can treat allergies, but you'll want to consult a physician to know which active ingredients to go for or avoid depending on any other conditions your loved one may have or other medications they take. 

"Dust the home frequently to keep pollen and other particles from building up."

Aside from medicines, there are a few steps you can take to improve allergy symptoms for your loved one. It's important to dust the home frequently to keep pollen and other particles from building up. When you have even a fine layer of irritants indoors, it's easy to accidentally kick them up and send them back into the air where you loved one can breathe them in, irritating their lungs and sinuses just as much as if they were outside around the plants. You should also keep windows closed to prevent pollen from getting inside in the first place, and be sure to change out air filters in your heating and cooling units. 

When your loved one does have to go outside, it may help them to wear glasses or goggles to protect their eyes. In extreme cases, they may opt to wear a surgical mask to make it easier to breathe clean. Be sure to do laundry often, including bedding, to keep allergens from sticking to fabrics. 

Symptoms can be uncomfortable, so if medications aren't available or working to completely eradicate symptoms, items like cough drops or warm tea with honey can help soothe sore throats and help to clear sinuses as well. 


While some over-the-counter medications can help allergy symptoms, it's important to consult a doctor first to avoid interactions with any prescriptions. While some over-the-counter medications can help allergy symptoms, it's important to consult a doctor first to avoid interactions with any prescriptions.

Complications caused by allergies
Severe allergies can lead to serious disruptions. The ACAAI reports that complications from allergies can impair senses enough to lead to motor vehicle accidents. People feeling the effects of allergies may also be more irritable and have trouble with memory, hand-eye coordination and concentration. They can also contribute to sleep disorders and diminish people's capacity for making decisions. In seniors, these can mimic some of the early warning signs of Alzheimer's. Be sure to consult with your loved one's doctor if you see these signs so they can be monitored. It will be important to track these symptoms to determine if they are simply the result of allergies or a more serious, underlying cause.

When allergies trigger asthma
Sometimes allergies can be so strong they trigger asthma attacks, which means a person's airways constrict and make it hard to breathe. On top of the traditional symptoms for allergies, signs for allergy-induced asthma will include:

  • A persistent, dry cough when exposed to the allergens.
  • Feeling pressure or tightness in the chest.
  • A wheezing or whistling noise when exhaling. 
  • Shortness of breath, especially after any level of physical activity. 
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • A chest cold that lasts more than 10 days.

Asthma will require different medications to treat, sometimes administered through an inhaler, and therefore needs to be diagnosed by a doctor for a proper treatment plan. The AAFA states that seniors who have mild asthma symptoms can have the same breathing troubles that a young adult or child experiences with severe asthma. 

The best way to protect your older loved one from allergy-triggered asthma is to limit their exposure to allergens and make sure they take their medications as directed. When going out, it's important to keep a fast-acting inhaler handy in case of an emergency. It's also recommended that they stay current on their flu and pneumonia vaccines to keep their lungs stronger and avoid potential hazards. 

While asthma may initially develop because of a tree pollen or ragweed allergy, it's important to prevent exposure to other irritants as well. Cigarette smoke and air pollution, for example, can damage lungs and make it hard for your loved one to get air. By using air purifiers and keeping as many air-borne allergens out of the home as possible, you can help make them safer.

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