Marilyn Modlin was in her late 50s when the sniffles, congestion, and headaches began. She never suffered from allergies before, so she waited it out, hoping the symptoms would go away. But instead they got worse. So bad, she had to sleep sitting up.
Over the next couple years, Modlin visited several allergy doctors, tried various allergy medications, and had sinus surgery and allergy testing. When symptoms did not subside, Modlin began allergy immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots. Immunotherapy involves the injections of allergenic extracts typically given over a period of about five years to desensitize your body to your allergy triggers.
Since starting treatment about three years ago, Modlin says her symptoms have been reduced by about 50 percent. “It’s like night and day difference,” says Modlin. “I’ve reduced my meds in half and I hope to keep cutting out more.”
At 63 years old, Modlin thought she was too old for allergies. But the truth is, allergies can occur at any age.
Not only that, but as we age, we become more prone to developing a non-allergic condition similar to allergies, called irritant-induced rhinitis. This condition causes a persistent drippy nose due to exposure to irritants like smoke, dust, or chemicals.
In addition, “people’s lives often change in their 60s and changes in your environment can trigger new allergic reactions,” says Jill Poole, allergist at Nebraska Medicine. “For instance, you may get a new dog or cat, you may move to a new part of the country, or spend your winters in warm environments where you are exposed to new molds, pollen, dust, or sand.”
Modlin attributes the onset of her symptoms to the Iowa/Nebraska flood of 2008, which left fields upon fields of dust, and wet, moldy, decaying matter. A resident of Crescent, Iowa, Modlin says she was surrounded by the dust and debris, and shortly thereafter, the allergy symptoms began.
“If you develop allergies in your 60s or older, don’t minimize your symptoms,” stresses Poole. “If allergies are impacting your sleep, they need to be addressed and treated aggressively. Sleep problems can lead to a host of other issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and depression. Your doctor also needs to be aware of other medications you may be taking to prevent negative drug interactions or side effects.”
So how do you know if those recurring symptoms of congestion, runny nose, and sneezing are allergies or just another cold? Allergies are more persistent, while the common cold will usually dissipate in approximately seven to 10 days, notes Poole. Like the common cold, allergies are associated with congestion and runny nose. But with allergies, you may also experience achy muscles and joints, watery eyes, itchy nose and eyes, a chronic cough, sinus headaches and chronic fatigue. Another clue, if you’ve tried various antibiotics to treat a supposed cold or sinus infection without success, it may be time to see an allergist.
“Allergies can have a large impact on your life as you get older,” says Dr. Poole. “An allergist can help guide you in taking the most appropriate medications or nasal sprays or determine whether you are a candidate for immunotherapy.”