Updated 08 June 2017

Adult onset allergies on the rise

Allergies, including those that first appear in adulthood, are on the rise according to one of SA’s leading allergy medicine providers, Pharma Dynamics.


Allergies, including those that first appear in adulthood, are on the rise according to one of SA’s leading allergy medicine providers, Pharma Dynamics.

Dr Mike Levin, Allergy Advisor to Pharma Dynamics, says the sudden appearance of an allergy despite decades of symptom-free health is not as uncommon as before.

“Even if you didn’t grow up with allergies, it is entirely possible to start suffering from them as an adult. You can enjoy a peanut butter sandwich for 20 years only to one day discover, out of the blue, that you are allergic to nuts.

“Although we do not have substantial data on allergy rates in this country, it is clear that allergies, especially those that appear in adulthood, are climbing dramatically and are likely to continue to rise in the near future,” says Dr Levin.

Dr Levin says allergies may develop later in life, because one had allergic potential to begin with, which was later triggered by respiratory infections over time; the higher concentrations of airborne pollutants; rising dust mite populations; less ventilation in homes and offices; dietary factors or an inactive lifestyle.

How the study was done

“Another theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, suggests that our sanitary surroundings could be to blame. A cleaner environment increases our susceptibility to allergic disease by suppressing the development of the immune system. In effect, our immune system is not as active as it could be, so our systems overreact to allergens instead.

“To add to this, new forms of adult-onset allergy are surfacing. Among them is oral-allergy syndrome - a condition that has arisen over the last 20 years - in which a person who has suffered in their younger years from hayfever suddenly finds, in their 30s, 40s, or even 50s, that they have allergic reactions to fresh fruits or vegetables.

This is when the body mistakes proteins in these foods for similar proteins in tree and grass pollen. They then react with symptoms, such as an itchy or tingling mouth and tongue.  The reaction is usually mild and confined to the mouth, but occasionally may be severe and spread to other body systems.

“Fruits which trigger oral-allergy syndrome (in susceptible people) include apples, nectarines and plums. Nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts, as well as certain vegetables like carrots and celery could also elicit an allergic response,” says Dr Levin. He points out that as we age, our immune system weakens, and so does the hyper-allergic reaction.

Allergies in adulthood can be mild to severe

“Any type of allergy can occur in adulthood and reactions can vary from mild to severe, and in some cases, cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition.”

Dr Levin says allergies in adults are generally treated by avoiding potential allergens and where necessary use over-the-counter medications like antihistamines that do not bring on drowsiness.

“If this doesn’t help, consult your doctor to rule out other conditions and get a referral to an allergist who can help determine specific triggers, ways to avoid them and possibly even give you a series of allergy injections,” he says. Severe reactions to foods need to be treated by an allergist who will make a proper diagnosis and provide a personalised action plan including a medic alert bracelet and injectable adrenaline.

(Press release, November 2012)

Read more: 

A-Z of Allergies

Tips to prevent food allergies in children

End your child's allergy suffering within 3 years

Fruit & veggies: super foods


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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