For Lisa Rice, 47, a marketing consultant in Austin, Texas, the trouble started last fall. "At first I was sneezing at all hours of the day," she says. Soon her nose was running nonstop. Then her eyes became red and itchy and were nearly crusted shut most mornings. She was sure it was an infection and was surprised by the doctor's diagnosis: allergies. "I hadn't experienced anything of that nature as a child or young adult," says Rice. "But my doctor said I was reacting to the cedar pollen that bothers people in this area every fall."
Allergists are diagnosing more people for the first time in their 30s, 40s and 50s, says David Rosenstreich, M.D., director of the division of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. In fact, 50% of people with nasal allergies are diagnosed after age 18, with what are referred to as adult- or late-onset allergies.
Long-term exposure to allergens, pollution or even certain viruses can trigger symptoms like sneezing and itching. "People will frequently become allergic after they have had common viral infections like mononucleosis or even a bad cold," says Dr. Rosenstreich. In some cases, a person may have an allergy in childhood, outgrow it, but then develop seasonal allergies as an adult. Others experience allergies for the first time when they move to a place with grasses, trees or pollens that are different from those their immune system is used to.
Allergists have seen an increase in allergies among both adults and kids over the last 30 years. Researchers speculate that thanks to antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and other powerful germ-killing products, kids today are less likely to be exposed to the bacteria and viruses that help the immune system shift into gear and prevent them from developing allergies and asthma as they grow up. Climate change could also lead to more pollen production. The good news: Whether you've been battling symptoms your entire life or they're a recent affliction, there are smarter anti-allergy strategies and better treatments than ever before.