Robert never had any allergies — nary a sniffle or a wheeze his entire life. Then he met his sister's new dog, a Lab named Finn. On a recent visit, Finn's copious dander ambushed the 39-year-old, causing sniffling, wheezing, runny eyes, scratchy throat, and relentless sneezing fits. "I'd never had reactions to any animals," he said. "Now I won't come in the door without drugging myself up."
Allergists and immunologists are seeing more men like Robert, men who've been blindsided by new allergies. "We used to think you couldn't develop allergies later in life," says immunologist Donata Vercelli, M.D., a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of Arizona. "They usually arrived when you were young, and you typically outgrew them."
Adult-onset allergies may be part of a broader phenomenon. Scientists call it the hygiene hypothesis: The less you've been exposed to allergens in your life, the more likely you may be to develop allergies as an adult, according to a 2009 Australian review in Allergy. The theory is that when your system is out of practice, it becomes sloppy, Dr. Vercelli says. Instead of idly standing by, it launches all-out attacks against harmless dander and pollen, leaving you congested, itchy, and inflamed. "Your immune system will work, not less effectively, but less appropriately," Dr. Vercelli says.
To hone your defenses, read on, and check out the Allergy Center.
From the air
The next time your boss blames your productivity dip on slacking, tell him it may be something in the air. Allergic rhinitis — a reaction that occurs inside the nasal passages and upper airways — costs employers millions in lost productivity and absenteeism each year. Often mistaken for bronchitis because both conditions cause coughing, it's actually triggered by pollen, pet dander, or dust mites.
When you're confronted with these invaders, a flood of chemicals — including histamine, bradykinin, and leukotrienes — dilates your mucous membranes, inflames your nose and throat, and causes your eyes to itch. Taking antihistamines such as generic Zyrtec or generic Claritin can help prevent allergic rhinitis symptoms in most people — as long as they take the meds early in the day and not just when the symptoms appear. But these drugs target only one part of your reaction, histamine, says pulmonologist Paul Enright, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona. This may not be enough to clear you up.
Your strategies: When your throat starts to itch, raid the spice rack. "Hot pepper, especially cayenne pepper, turns on mucus production," says James Dillard, M.D., Men's Health's integrative-medicine advisor. "So if you have pollen sitting there, you may be able to rinse it out just by adding some pepper to your dish."
For persistent problems, ask your physician about allergen-specific immunotherapy, which can shift your system to a nonallergic immune response. Currently, immunotherapy injections are the only FDA-approved treatment method for allergies. Some European countries recently approved an under-the-tongue tablet for grass-pollen sensitivity and are developing similar tablets to target allergies to dust mites and birch pollen. The FDA is investigating this treatment, and a 2008 study by the Naval Medical Center, in San Diego, found that allergists who've experimented with it viewed the treatment as safe and effective.
At home, turn down the thermostat. Warm indoor temperatures in winter can bring on a stuffy nose, irritated eyes, and wheezing, according to a recent U.S. government study. Make sure your house stays below 73ºF, the temperature at which the symptoms began in study participants. When it comes to pets, if you have an allergy and will be visiting a pet-friendly home, start using a nasal steroid spray 5 days beforehand, says George Pyrgos, M.D., an allergy and immunology fellow at Johns Hopkins University. These products, including Nasonex and Flonase, help prevent the inflammation caused by pet dander.
From your food
Most likely you're not allergic to food. Only about 4 percent of adults are, and their reactions are generally limited to fish, shellfish, and nuts. But being among the other 96 percent doesn't mean you're entirely off the hook. Certain fish, when they're mishandled (inadequately refrigerated, for example) can release histamine, the same inflammatory chemical released by your immune system's mast cells. "Some people eat fish and get a reaction that appears almost identical to a food allergic reaction," says Anju Peters, M.D., an associate professor of allergy and immunology at Northwestern University.
Additionally, if your mouth itches every time you eat fruit, you may have oral allergy syndrome, a condition that adults with pollen allergies may develop. That's because some types of pollen have proteins that are similar in structure to those of specific fruits. Such pairings include ragweed and melons, tree pollen and apples, and grass pollen and tomatoes. "The similarities trick your immune system into thinking the trigger is one of these pollens when it's actually the fruit," says Dr. Pyrgos.
Your strategies: If you're uncertain about whether you're allergic to a specific food, consider requesting an allergen-detecting blood test called an ImmunoCAP. It's 95 to 98 percent accurate, according to a recent Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology study. In the case of oral allergy syndrome, Dr. Pyrgos recommends avoiding the fruits, or eating them skinless, when your pollen sensitivity is high.
Through your skin
The winter complexion you probably attribute to cold, dry air could actually be atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. It causes red, itchy skin and is triggered by unknown allergens. If you have it, you'll see tiny cracks in your skin. These fissures let in additional allergens and the natural bacteria on your skin (such as staph), giving them easy access to the immune cells waiting just below the surface. Or you may have contact dermatitis, in which one of nearly 3,000 triggers — such as nickel in a belt buckle or wristwatch — causes a similar reaction.
Your strategies: For eczema, apply a liberal layer of petroleum jelly to irritated areas after a shower to seal in moisture. Use only fragrance-free soaps, shampoos, and shaving products to avoid further irritation. For a persistent rash, apply hydrocortisone cream.
Because contact dermatitis symptoms don't show up for 24 to 72 hours, it may be difficult to pinpoint the cause. Identify the source with a doctor-administered T.R.U.E. test. Your doctor will stick a strip of allergens to your back for a few days to see if reactions develop.
If you have a nickel sensitivity, test your items with an Allertest Ni kit (allerderm.com, $13). If you want to keep using nickel products, coat them with a layer of clear nail polish. Accidentally exposed? Smear on some hydrocortisone cream. And click here to find the solutions to 11 other common skin problems.