Just because you never had them growing up doesn't mean you're off the hook. Symptoms can crop up in your 20s, 30s, 40s -- pretty much at any point. Blame a combo of genes and environmental triggers, says Luz Fonacier, M.D., a professor of clinical medicine at SUNY Stony Brook University. You might have had the problem all along but didn't know -- for example, you have a mold allergy but grew up in a dry climate. Or, because one allergy puts you at risk for others, you might have outgrown one sensitivity only to develop another.
Your first step is to figure out exactly what's triggering a reaction; seeing an allergist for a round of testing is the best way to do that. Skin tests -- in which small amounts of allergens are applied topically to see whether you react -- are most common, giving results in just 20 minutes. (Blood tests might be needed due to skin conditions or a severe allergy.) Next, talk to the doc about what medications will work best for you. Most people find relief for itchy eyes, runny nose, congestion, and sneezing with an over-the-counter antihistamine pill or nasal spray, although you might have to kick it up to a prescription. Nasal steroid sprays (OTC and Rx), which reduce swelling in the nasal passages, tend to be more potent. And leukotriene inhibitors can help respiratory symptoms by easing inflammation in the airways. Often, it takes a bit of trial and error to find the right med -- or combination -- to really get relief.
Due to a phenomenon called priming, reactions can play off each other. Here's how it works: Say you're allergic to cats and ragweed. If the cat allergy is mild, you might be able to spend a brief amount of time with a friend's cat. But when ragweed season arrives, being around a cat could be intolerable, because your immune system has already been revved up by the ragweed. "Exposure to one allergen increases your overall sensitivity; it's synergistic," says Gerald Lee, M.D., chief of allergy and immunology at University of Louisville School of Medicine.
If you have multiple allergies, or a severe one, consider shots (aka immunotherapy), in which you're given the allergen in gradually increasing doses so that you eventually become desensitized and have a very mild reaction, or none at all.
By all means, keep up your cleaning regimen to tame household mold hot spots like shower curtains, bathtubs, tile, and garbage cans. But airborne mold spores (which are easily inhaled) are the bigger symptom triggers, and those levels tend to be higher outdoors, especially in late summer and fall, Lee says. Steer clear of moldy areas including freshcut grass, compost piles, and, of course, rotting branches and decaying leaves.
As with other allergies, timing your meds right can make a huge difference. "If you take medication before you head into potentially damp and moldy territory -- a hike in the woods, for example -- it's possible not to have any symptoms," Lee says.
You might not have a true food allergy if your mouth itches or swells when you eat certain produce. It could be a condition called oral allergy syndrome, a reaction that occurs because some plants, fruits, and vegetables have similar proteins. "People who have severe pollen sensitivity can end up with symptoms that mimic food reactions," Lee says. If you're very allergic to birch pollen, watch out for apples, almonds, carrots, celery, cherries, hazelnuts, kiwi, peaches, pears, and plums. Bad grass pollen allergies? Celery, melons, oranges, peaches, and tomatoes could be your troublemakers. And those with strong ragweed allergies might need to be careful with bananas, cucumbers, melons, sunflower seeds, and zucchini.
The good news is that these reactions aren't generally dangerous, and they usually affect just your mouth. An antihistamine like Benadryl can tame localized discomfort, and cooking the problematic foods can also help. "Heat breaks down the proteins in the foods that trigger a reaction, so they're less potent," Lee says. While peaches might be problematic, peach pie could be a go!