You can work out every day, eat the healthiest food, and get plenty of sleep, but no matter how hard you try, you might not be able to avoid the emerging phenomenon of adult-onset allergies, which can strike at any age, regardless of whether you suffered sniffling and wheezing as a kid. According to a 2009 review in the journal Allergy, being exposed to allergens your entire life can boost the chances of your becoming allergic to them later on. And allergists are finding that these allergies are more than just standard seasonal reactions to hayfever or pollen. They're discovering allergies to some really strange things, some of which are misdiagnosed often, leading to more misery for you, the allergy sufferer. So if you want to stay allergy free long into your retirement, we've got some tips to protect you.
The Trigger: Any spice you encounter regularly, whether it's found in food, personal care products, or various fragranced products that include spices in their scent mixtures, can kick off a reaction. Spices are being used more and more in all of these sorts of products, says Sami Bahna, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). And because people are eating out more, spice-allergic folks don't always pinpoint spices as the source of their misery. "Because spices are used in small quantities, not as a main ingredient, nobody thinks, 'I was eating cumin' or, 'I was eating garlic or black pepper,'" says Dr. Bahna. They're more likely to focus on the main ingredient. Symptoms include gastrointestinal irritation, hives, or itching, he says, but can also present as wheezing if the spices are inhaled or skin irritation if you're picking the plant from which the spices are derived.
The Fix: Spice allergies are exceedingly difficult to diagnose, Dr. Bahna says, but one way you can test for them is to eat a processed food or a restaurant dish that triggers any of the above reactions then make that dish yourself at home. If you don't have the reaction to your homemade dish, the chef or food manufacturer may have used a spice you're allergic to. Ultimately, a visit to your allergist will help you find relief, he says.
The Trigger: Nickel. The metal is found in the exterior casings of mobile phones, as well as many of the interior components, and can cause an itchy rash or a dry patch along your cheek and jawline. Nickel is one of the most common causes of contact dermatitis in the U.S., affecting 17 percent of women and 3 percent of men. Another metal used in phones, cobalt, can cause similar allergic reactions, but they're much less common. Just 1 to 3 percent of the population suffers from cobalt allergy.
The Fix: Buy a new phone. Allergists from the ACAAI recently analyzed Blackberries, iPhones, and phones using the Android operating system and found that while one-third of all Blackberries contain nickel, neither nickel nor cobalt was detected in iPhones or Android phones. Of course, if you love your Blackberry, there are other ways to avoid a bad rash: Use a nickel-free headset for conversations, and opt to text rather than have a long conversation whenever you can.
The Trigger: Lone star ticks. These parasites, which are common in the Southeast but spreading northward, have a protein in their saliva called alpha-gal that in sensitive people can cause delayed allergic reactions to red meat, according to research from the University of Virginia. That same protein exists in beef, lamb, and pork. When you're bitten, your body produces antibodies to the protein--and in some people, those same antibodies are produced when they eat red meat. The antibodies can trigger itchy, burning hives all over your trunk and back, which can take up to three hours to appear, or even cause severe anaphylactic shock. In some people, the allergy goes away a few weeks after a tick bite, says Thomas Platts-Mills, MD, professor of medicine and head of the division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and the doctor who stumbled onto this discovery. But in other people, the allergy can persist for as long as 20 years.
The Fix: Take commonsense tick-bite prevention measures. Because of warmer winters brought on by climate change, the tick season is getting more and more unpredictable. So if you live in heavily tick-infested areas, take these precautions year-round:
• If you've spent time outside--even in your yard--take a shower as soon as you go into the house. Research has shown this tactic to be very effective in knocking ticks off of your body before they can attach.
• If you live near woods or a meadow, install a strip of gravel between your yard and those habitats. This prevents both ticks and the animals that carry them from infiltrating your yard.
• On long hikes, tuck in your shirt and tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from crawling inside your clothing.
The Trigger: No one really knows what the most likely culprit is. There are dozens of potentially allergenic compounds in wine, ranging from a protein found in the grapes' skins to proteins formed by yeast and lactic acid bacteria during the fermentation process. But this is an allergy that often goes undiagnosed, according to research from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany. The research, which was considered preliminary, estimated that roughly 4 percent of the world's population has wine allergies, suffering symptoms like flushed skin, runny nose, and diarrhea in mild cases and vomiting, asthma, and circulatory-system failure in more extreme cases.
The Fix: Drink more wine! The study authors said that if you drink wine often enough you may start to develop a tolerance to its allergenic proteins--provided you can put up with whatever allergylike reaction you experience while drinking it, and provided those aren't life threatening. Or you can opt for white wines, which have fewer allergenic proteins than red wines, or drink cocktails that don't make you miserable. May we suggest a GMO-free, organic margarita?
The Trigger: Time. If you grew up around a dog or cat then moved into an animal-free home for a long period of time, you might find yourself wheezing and sneezing the next time you visit your parents. Allergists call it the "Thanksgiving Effect," because they first noticed it among college students who go home over the holidays. It can strike even if you weren't allergic to animals as a kid.
The Fix: It might be hard to pinpoint your allergies to a family pet, especially if you were never allergic to the animal before. If you have an allergy, you'll experience prolonged symptoms throughout your visit, says James Sublett, MD, chair of ACAAI's Indoor Environment Committee, whereas if you're allergic to a relative's perfume or a cleaning product you've never encountered, the reaction will come and go.
The Trigger: Saliva. If you have an allergy to a food or drug that a person ate or took before kissing you, you could find yourself allergic to their lovin'. Dr. Bahna says that some people are so sensitive to certain foods or drugs that contact through kissing can trigger a reaction. Allergens can also be secreted by oils in your skin, he says, so you can have the same kind of reaction after coming into close physical contact whether you kiss the person or not.
The Fix: If you have a food or drug allergy, bring it up with your partner before things start to get hot. Dr. Bahna notes that allergic proteins can linger for hours after the source has crossed someone's lips, and don't go away once that person has brushed his or her teeth.
The Trigger: Semen. It sounds bizarre, but it is possible for women to be allergic to the proteins found in their husband's or boyfriend's semen, says Dr. Bahna. The allergy will show up after you have unprotected sex and can appear as local swelling or itching in the outer genital area, which is why the allergy is sometimes misdiagnosed as an STD. In rare cases, women can go into full anaphylactic shock. For women trying to get pregnant, the allergy can cause serious problems, since the only way to prevent reactions is with a condom. In those cases, he says, it's best to consider in vitro fertilization.
The Fix: Condoms will prevent a reaction, but allergists have ways to desensitize your body to a semen allergy. An allergist can also help you determine if you have a true semen allergy and not an allergy to latex in condoms or chemicals in lubricants or other personal care products you may be using.