Thanks to an unusually warm winter, allergy season has come early this year. As pollen fills the air weeks ahead of schedule, people afflicted by seasonal allergies are beginning to groan.
Like many millions of Americans, the elderly are not exempt from the stuffy noses and watery eyes that accompany allergies. But, unlike most of those millions, seniors often have complicating factors such as chronic diseases that can make it difficult to deal with their allergies.
Christopher Randolph, M.D., member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology's Asthma & Allergic Diseases in the Elderly Committee, discusses ways caregivers can make allergy season bearable for their elderly loved ones:
- Look for the signs: Allergies don't discriminate between the young and the old. Randolph says that people falsely assume that the elderly do not get seasonal allergies, when, in fact, they are just as likely as anyone else to be affected when spring blooms begin to appear. Caregivers should be on the lookout for the traditional signs of allergies: sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes.
- Make sure their doctor knows: Randolph points out that it can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose allergies in an older person, particularly when they're focused on a senior's larger health issues. Elderly people often have multiple chronic health problems, and it can be hard for a doctor to separate a potential allergy from an ongoing disease. A caregiver who suspects that their elderly loved one may have allergies should bring their concerns to their loved one's doctor.
- Be aggressive: "Allergies have a larger impact on the lives and health of the elderly," Randolph says. It makes sense; allergy symptoms, such as a congested nose and an irritated throat, can be extremely dangerous to a senior who has pre-existing cardiovascular problems. This is why 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 include: confusion, drowsiness, urinary retention, dry mouth and eyes, and dizziness. Randolph says that antihistamines can potentially cause changes in mood or behavior in the elderly and may lead to dangerous interactions with commonly prescribed medications. For the senior suffering from seasonal allergies, a doctor will likely prescribe a nasal steroid or some form of topical medication.
- Be on the lookout for upcoming treatment options: Randolph says that there is a new type of treatment for allergies being developed specifically for the elderly. By combining an antihistamine with a steroid inhaler, this new treatment will be able to deliver the antihistamine directly into the nose, avoiding the unpleasant side effects traditionally associated with the drug. While it probably won't be ready in time to help seniors this season, Randolph expects the treatment will be available to the public within the next three to six months.