Spring has sprung! Longer days, sunnier skies, and yes, seasonal allergies!
While allergies are often considered a condition that presents earlier in life, seniors are not exempt from bothersome allergy symptoms. Age-related changes to the immune system put older adults at a higher risk for autoimmune diseases, infections, and allergic inflammation. Having chronic diseases and taking multiple medications can make it hard to diagnose, manage, and treat seasonal allergies in seniors.
Tips for Managing Allergies in the Elderly
According to Christopher Randolph, M.D., Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) and allergist/immunologist in Connecticut, USA, there are some strategies that caregivers can use to help their aging loved ones cope with allergy season.
1. Look for Allergy Symptoms Allergies don’t discriminate between the young and the old. People mistakenly assume the elderly don't get seasonal allergies when they're just as likely to get them as anyone else when spring comes around, says Randolph. The onset of allergies in adults isn't uncommon. Caregivers should be on the lookout for traditional signs like sneezing, coughing, congestion, runny nose, wheezing and itchy, watery eyes so they can nip them in the bud.
2. Inform Their Doctor As Dr. Randolph points out, it's hard for doctors to diagnose allergies in older people, especially during short appointments when they're focused on detecting and managing larger health problems. More weighty symptoms like pain, depression, and changes in mental state can easily take priority over allergy symptoms. It's also possible that people with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia can't express their discomfort. Do not hesitate to tell your doctor if you suspect your loved one has allergies.
3. Be Aggressive “Allergies have a larger impact on the lives and health of the elderly,” explains Dr. Randolph. In seniors with pre-existing cardiovascular problems or lung disease, allergy symptoms, like nasal congestion, coughing and irritated throats, can be extremely dangerous. This is why Dr. Randolph feels that allergies in the elderly should be treated as rapidly and aggressively as possible.
4. Avoid First-Generation Antihistamines The class of drugs most commonly prescribed to treat allergies, antihistamines, can be dangerous for seniors. There are two popular first-generation antihistamines: diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton). These over-the-counter medicines can cause anxiety, confusion, sedation, drowsiness, urine retention, dry mouth and eyes, and dizziness, according to the AAAAI. Furthermore, these side effects can cause dangerous falls and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Additionally, Dr. Randolph says antihistamines can cause changes in mood or behaviour in the elderly and may interact with other drugs. If your loved one has allergies, talk to their doctor or pharmacist about alternative allergy treatments before reaching for an over-the-counter antihistamine. Some form of topical medication or a nasal steroid will likely be recommended. When these options don't work, try a second- or third-generation antihistamine like cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin) or fexofenadine (Allegra). Even though the AAAAI recommends these allergy medicines for seniors because they don't cause as many side effects, it's still important to list all the medications your loved one is taking so their doctor or pharmacist can rule out any potential interactions.
5. Try Drug-Free Solutions Environmental allergens, like mould spores and grass, tree, and weed pollen, trigger seasonal allergies. You can avoid bothersome allergic reactions by minimizing exposure to these allergens. This is not always easy, but a few lifestyle changes can help.
It's important for seniors to get outside, get some exercise, and soak up some sun, but during allergy season it can make them feel worse.
Most weather forecasts these days include pollen counts or allergy warnings. You can use this information to avoid outdoor activities when outdoor allergens are high.
If you and your loved one must go out, remember to wear sunglasses to avoid eye irritation.
Wash your hands, take a shower, and change into fresh clothes as soon as you get home to avoid bringing allergens into the house.
In addition to minimizing symptoms, saline nasal sprays can help flush allergens out of nasal passages and sinuses.
Open the windows only on low pollen days if you and your loved one enjoy the fresh air.
Maintain your air conditioner regularly and make sure it's equipped with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter that can remove allergens from the air.
If your loved one also has indoor allergies to things like dust, dust mites and pets, they may benefit from using an air purifier.
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