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HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

Guide to allergies in the elderly

Allergies can be very problematic for some older adults and may affect other conditions.

July 11, 2023

Elderly woman with hayfever

While allergies can develop and cause problems for some people through any stage of life, it’s common for some allergies to worsen or become more difficult to manage in later years. Whether seasonal allergies or environmental allergies, it’s important to identify allergy triggers and try to prevent allergic reactions to minimise any negative impact on elderly life and wellbeing.

In this article, we look at what types of allergies are likely to develop in later life, what issues this can cause and what to do if your elderly loved one is experiencing allergies and finding it difficult to manage.

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What causes allergies in older people?

While many people experience allergies at other times in their life too, it’s not uncommon for the reactions that people have to allergens to increase or change as we age. This can be because immune systems do weaken in later life and the body is less able to deal with reactions in the same way it used to. It can mean that something which didn’t seem to cause an allergic reaction in the past, now does.

Essentially, an allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance by producing antibodies to combat it. The immune system has incorrectly identified the substance as harmful, and the reactions that can occur can be anything from skin inflammation or stomach upsets to swelling in the sinuses or airways. Severe allergic reactions can be life-threatening, although most people with less serious allergies still have to deal with often painful and inconvenient symptoms.

With a weaker immune system, that many older people have, the symptoms can be more profound or last for longer, which can mean that previously mild allergies can be much more challenging to manage in later life and have a bigger impact on everyday life.

 

What allergies develop later in life?

It’s thought that allergies can develop at any point in life, including later years, but some of the most common allergies that might develop in elderly people include:

  • Food allergies
  • Allergies to certain types of medication
  • Pollen allergies (usually known as hay fever)
  • Insect bite/sting allergies
  • Skin allergies

Food allergies

Food allergies are not always associated with older people, but it can be the case that some older people generally eat a limited range of foods, due to their personal preferences and the meals they like to make and eat. If new foods are introduced, this can potentially cause new allergies to develop.

Medication allergies

As older people tend to take more medications as time goes by, the chances do increase that they may have an allergic reaction to something they take. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time that they take a medication, as it’s often the case that the allergy develops over time with repeated exposure to it.

Pollen allergies

Whether it’s grass or tree pollen, having an allergic reaction to pollen can have a significant impact on daily life, as levels can be frequently high during spring, summer and autumn. Some older people can find that their hay fever symptoms worsen as they get older, due to changes in their immune system over time.

Insect allergies

Whether it’s insect bites, stings, or an allergy to things such as dust mites in the home, having this kind of allergy can result in stronger symptoms in later life. Bites or stings may result in more swelling, redness and pain, which lasts longer. As older people’s skin is usually more fragile, it can also mean that any scratching or rubbing of the site of any bites or stings can cause more damage which the body then has to heal, and there can be a higher risk of infection.

Skin allergies

As skin changes with age, usually becoming thinner and drier, it can mean that older people start having noticeable reactions when coming into contact with things that were not a problem in the past. This could be a reaction (usually a rash or swelling) after touching a plant, to certain metals in jewellery, or to skin lotions or laundry detergent, for example.

 

Elderly man with allergic reaction


Potential dangers of allergies in the elderly

For most people, mild allergic reactions are an annoying and sometimes painful inconvenience, but the consequences can sometimes be more serious in the elderly. For example:

  • Allergic reactions that affect the skin might take longer to heal and infection may set in
  • Allergic reactions that affect the breathing or cause coughing can be more dangerous to an elderly person with an existing condition that affects the respiratory system, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A food allergy that causes an upset stomach can have a significant impact on someone who is already frail and perhaps underweight.

 

How do you treat allergies in the elderly?

It’s generally the symptoms of allergies that are treated, to minimise the body’s reaction, help with a quicker recovery and limit the disruption it causes to normal life. An appropriate treatment will depend on the nature of the allergen and the reaction it causes.

It’s important that a medical professional is consulted before taking any medications for allergies, including over-the-counter tablets or creams. While some antihistamines can be very effective for managing lots of allergic reactions, some of them cause drowsiness or may have other side effects that can have a potentially negative impact on some older people, possibly even adding to the risk of falls.

Any serious allergic reaction needs immediate medical attention, but most minor reactions should be discussed with a GP if the symptoms are interfering with normal life, keep coming back or are making other existing conditions worse.

 

How to prevent increasing allergies with age?

As with most things related to health, prevention is better than cure. Avoiding coming into contact with allergy triggers is the best way to avoid reactions. In order to manage this as effectively as possible, it’s important to determine what these triggers are so that precautions can be taken around them.

If an elderly person in your life isn’t sure what is causing an allergic reaction, keeping a diary of every reaction can be really helpful.

Noting down when it happens, what time of day or night, what they were doing at the time, what they last ate or drank etc. These details can help pin down exactly what is causing the allergic reaction so that the trigger can be avoided as much as possible in the future.

For known allergies, such as insect bites, wearing insect repellent and covering up when outdoors can really help minimise any reactions. In a similar way, taking preventative hay fever tablets before spending time outdoors can help with seasonal allergies, along with keeping windows and doors closed on high pollen count days.

For known allergies to any medications, ensure that the GP notes this on their medical records and make sure that other family members or loved ones are also aware of any allergies they have.

 

Elderly woman

Peace of mind when living with allergies in later life

If you have an older loved one with allergies that affect their normal, independent life and could potentially cause more serious problems, it can be a real worry when you’re not with them, especially if they live alone.

Along with taking steps to minimise their exposure to the allergy triggers, you may also benefit from the peace of mind that a personal alarm for the elderly can bring. Designed to be worn at all times, the alarm raises an alert with a 24/7 emergency resolution team with the single press of a button. This means that if your elderly loved one has an allergic reaction and feels unwell, or has any other kind of incident, fall or accident, they can reach help straight away, without having to find and use a telephone.

If you’d like to find out more about our products and find the best option for your older loved one, get in touch with our team by calling 0800 085 7371.

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

Download brochure

Ways to support independent living

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

Download brochure


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