Unfortunately, some of the nicest weather and foliage during the year is accompanied by an onslaught of allergens. As pollen fills the air, people afflicted by seasonal allergies begin to groan.
Like millions of Americans, seniors are not exempt from bothersome allergy symptoms. However, seniors often have complicating factors such as chronic diseases that can make it difficult to manage and treat their watery eyes and stuffy noses.
Christopher Randolph, MD, a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology’s Asthma & Allergic Diseases in the Elderly Committee, offers the following suggestions to help caregivers make allergy season more bearable for their loved ones:
- Look for the signs. Allergies don’t discriminate between the young and the old. Dr. Randolph says that people falsely assume the elderly do not get seasonal allergies when they are just as likely as anyone else to be affected when spring blooms begin to appear. In fact, adult-onset allergies are not unusual. Caregivers should be on the lookout for the traditional signs like sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes so they can nip them in the bud.
- Inform their doctor. Dr. Randolph points out that it can be difficult for a physician to diagnose allergies in older individuals, especially when they’re focused on catching and managing larger health issues. Allergy symptoms can easily take a backseat to more weighty symptoms, like pain, depression and changes in memory. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia may not be able to articulate their discomfort either. If you suspect that your loved one may have allergies, definitely inform the doctor of your concerns.
- Be aggressive. “Allergies have a larger impact on the lives and health of the elderly,” explains Dr. Randolph. It makes sense; allergy symptoms, such as a nasal congestion and an irritated throat can be extremely dangerous for seniors with pre-existing cardiovascular problems or lung disease. This is why Dr. Randolph feels that allergies in the elderly should be treated as rapidly and aggressively as possible.
- Avoid traditional antihistamines. Antihistamines, the class of drug most commonly prescribed to treat allergies, can be dangerous to seniors. Potential side effects from these medications, especially older varieties, include confusion, drowsiness, urine retention, dry mouth and eyes, and dizziness. In addition to these symptoms being irritating, they can contribute to dangerous falls and even urinary tract infections (UTIs). Furthermore, Dr. Randolph says that antihistamines can potentially cause changes in mood or behavior in the elderly and may lead to dangerous interactions with other commonly prescribed medications.
Instead of reaching for an over-the-counter antihistamine, speak with your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist about alternative allergy treatments. They will likely recommend a nasal steroid or some form of topical medication.
- Try drug-free solutions. Seasonal allergies are triggered by increases of pollen and mold in the environment. Minimizing exposure to these allergens is an obvious way to avoid bothersome reactions. This is not always easy, but a few lifestyle changes can help.
Getting outside to breathe in the fresh air, exercise and soak up a little sun is very important for seniors, but doing so during allergy season can leave them feeling worse afterwards. Weather forecasts these days typically include a pollen count or allergy forecast. Use this to your advantage and try to avoid planning outdoor activities for when outdoor allergens are particularly high. If you and your loved one must go outside, remember to wear sunglasses to avoid eye irritation. As soon as you come home, make a point of washing your hands, showering and changing into fresh clothes to avoid introducing allergens into the house. If you and your loved one enjoy opening the windows for fresh air, try to do so only on low pollen days as well.
Make sure that your air conditioning unit is serviced regularly and equipped with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter that can remove allergens from outside air to keep them from entering and circulating around the house. If your loved one also has indoor allergies to things like dust and pets, they may benefit from using an air purifier.