What You Need To Know About First-Time Allergies As An Adult

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
We often think of allergies as a childhood problem — and assume that if something was gonna come up, it certainly would have done so by now. But the truth is, while "it does tend to be a youthful diagnosis, you can develop allergies at any age," explains Janna Tuck, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Researchers still don't totally know what causes an allergy to develop. "We think it's the same mechanism whether it's happening in a mature adult or in a 6-year-old," says Dr. Tuck. That mechanism causes your immune system to overreact to usually harmless things, like mold or pollen, resulting in classic symptoms such as runny nose, itchy eyes, wheezing, and skin rashes.

If you've had the unfortunate experience of a brand-new allergy as an adult, know that you're not alone in that misery. Here, we talked to Dr. Tuck about why the allergy gods may have chosen you this year — and how to deal.
1. Childhood allergies make others more likely.
Although it's not required, having had an allergy when you were younger does make allergies in adulthood more likely. In fact, Dr. Tuck says that even though those childhood allergies may get better over time, you can develop different allergies later in life.

Your genetics and family history play a role, too, especially when it comes to what are called "atopic diseases" like asthma, allergic rhinitis, and eczema. "If you have immediate family members with one of those diseases, your likelihood [of developing an allergy] is greater than the general population," explains Dr. Tuck. So, if your dad reacts to ragweed, you're at a higher risk for adult-onset allergies — even if you missed out on 'em on as a kid.

2. But you only get one food allergy.
"Despite what you see on blogs, most adults don't have more than one food allergy," says Dr. Tuck. So, if you grew up with a tree-nut allergy, it's unlikely that you'll develop an allergy to eggs later on. However, within a group of foods, such as fish, people may show "cross-reactivity," meaning that if they react to tuna, for instance, they may also react to cod. Non-food allergies — including things like hay fever, cats, and drugs — are all still fair game.

3. It might not be allergies.
"Your symptoms may seem allergic, but they might not be allergic," says Dr. Tuck. It turns out, there are a fair amount of non-allergy conditions that might look like an allergic reaction. For instance, people with nonallergic rhinopathy often develop a very runny nose after coming in contact with cigarette smoke, air pollution, or perfume. But that doesn't mean they are having a true immune response to those things. That can be especially confusing if you've never had an allergy before.

Plus, it can get even more complicated than that. Those who have oral allergy syndrome, for example, develop reactions to certain fruits and vegetables that share proteins in common with things they're allergic to seasonally. So, although that might not be a new allergy, it may mimic one.
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To clarify exactly what's going on — and to just make your life easier — it's important to get checked out by board-certified allergist, says Dr. Tuck. With an allergist in your corner, you'll have a better shot at taming your usual allergy symptoms and any surprising new ones that pop up along the way.
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