Allergies and Asthma in Seniors

Allergies and Asthma in Seniors

Most of us are well aware of what a seasonal allergic reaction feels like – sniffling and coughing, eyes that itch and water, and difficulty drawing breath through a clogged up nose are just a few of the annoying symptoms. But there are other things that can trigger an allergic reaction, such as food and insect stings. And for some seniors, those reactions can be enough to trigger anaphylactic shock.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 100 million individuals suffer from allergies each year. In fact, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the US.1

Allergies can suddenly appear in the elderly or existing allergies can get worse as they age. There are many reasons for this, such as the immune system not working as well as it used to, which invites more health problems. But it’s also important to note that medications are the top cause of allergy-related death; and since seniors tend to take more medications, the potential for allergies and interactions goes up.2

Asthma can be just as serious as allergies. In fact, the two are sometimes mistaken for each other, which can lead to delays in treatment and serious consequences for those who are misdiagnosed.

Asthma tends to affect older individuals at the same rate as any other age group. The Clinical and Translational Allergy journal says that up to 10% of seniors suffer from asthma. However, while asthma treatments are reducing the fatalities that can result from asthma attacks in most age groups, those over the age of 65 are more likely to have serious health complications than younger people are.3 To this end, seniors with asthma or major allergies should seriously consider an affordable medical alert system that can summon help fast at the press of a wearable button alarm.

Allergy or Asthma Attack: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Allergies are an immune response to an allergen. The body’s immune system decides that something is a threat and mounts an immune response to it, leading to the symptoms of allergies.

Those allergens can affect people quite differently. For instance, someone with a peanut allergy might have a reaction so severe that they can’t even be in the vicinity of peanuts, while someone else might munch away happily on them. Something that seems harmless to one person, like fresh-cut grass, can send another person’s body into chaos the moment they come into contact with it.

Allergies typically show up with annoying symptoms that aren’t life-threatening, such as sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose, or hives (a type of skin rash). Someone can be allergic to almost anything, but the most common allergens include pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and certain foods.

Asthma is different from allergies in that it is a chronic respiratory condition that primarily affects the lungs. Asthma means that your body mounts a very severe response to different triggers – that might include allergens, but it can also include things like cold air, aerobic exercise, or even stress. Whatever triggers the asthma results in the same thing: your airways narrow and it becomes difficult to breathe.

The symptoms of asthma are distinct from those of allergies and can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a feeling of tightness in your chest.

So why are asthma and allergies often mistaken for each other?

That’s because allergies can actually trigger asthma. This is called allergic asthma. So instead of having only the typical symptoms of an allergy but no trouble breathing, those with allergic asthma will have the symptoms of both conditions.

But it’s important to remember that some people with asthma are not triggered by allergies, and most people with allergies will never develop asthma.

Getting a Proper Diagnosis

In addition to the fact that sometimes allergies and asthma can go hand-in-hand, there is also the fact that the body’s severe response to an allergen can mimic a bad asthma attack. Anaphylactic shock occurs when you come into contact with an allergen that your body fights hard against, triggering the immune system to go into overdrive. In anaphylactic shock, the airways narrow and can make it very difficult to breathe, just as if you were having an asthma attack. And both situations require medical intervention to resolve them.

But the only way to know for sure what is happening to you is to go through a series of tests designed to determine if you have asthma, allergies, or both. Expect these tests for allergies:

·        Skin tests. These tests are very simple. A small area of the skin is exposed to a particular allergen and the doctor observes how the skin responds to it. For instance, if you are allergic to shellfish, the area of the skin that is exposed to the allergen will react by swelling and becoming red or itchy. While that might sound painful, most skin tests are on such a small area of the forearm or back that there is minimal discomfort while you get the answers you need. The body’s response usually shows up within 15 minutes, making this test a fast way to figure out what you are allergic to.

·        Blood tests. Some allergies will show up in the blood in the form of antibodies. As your body fights off an allergen, antibodies are produced, which stay in your bloodstream for a while after you have overcome the allergen. Getting the blood test results can take a week or so. Given that, this test works well for those who want to confirm the results of a skin test or who have a specific allergen in mind that they can easily avoid while waiting for the test results.

If the doctor suspects you have asthma, the following tests are likely:

·        Spirometry and peak flow assessment: These two tests are often combined. They measure how much air you can breathe in and how quickly you can exhale.

·        Methacholine test: This test uses doses of methacholine, which is a substance known to trigger narrowing of the airways in those who have asthma. It is performed under the close supervision of a medical professional. The test measures how sensitive your airways are and how much of a reaction your body has to the substance.

·        Chest x-rays or CT scans: These tests are more meant to rule out other problems that can mimic asthma, such as pneumonia or scarring of the lungs.

You might also undergo tests that measure how exercise or cold air affects your airways.

Can Asthma Develop in the Elderly for the First Time?

It makes sense to think of asthma as a kid’s disease, because it does often show up in childhood. But asthma can strike at any age. Some have been diagnosed in their 60s or even later!

A major hindrance to diagnosing asthma in the elderly is that it can mimic other problems that are more common in seniors, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Just as with COPD, the most common symptoms of asthma in older adults are coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing.

That’s why it’s so important to visit the doctor at the first sign of breathing trouble. Sure, it might be allergies, but what if it’s not? A life-threatening asthma attack can come on very quickly and leave you struggling to breathe. That’s why it’s vital to get the proper diagnosis and to be prepared for those moments when the condition is serious.

A medical alert pendant makes it super-fast and easy to get help – simply press the panic button to get connected to a monitoring center, where a trained professional will assess the situation and get help on the way. Those at the monitoring center are highly trained and know how to handle the situation even if you can’t speak to them.

Can Allergies Come Out of Nowhere?

Just like asthma, allergies can develop in seniors for the first time. Maybe you had no problems at all with certain foods in the past, but now you do. Perhaps pollen didn’t seem to affect you at all in your younger years, but now you watch pollen counts because you know when it’s high, you’re going to feel miserable.

Some allergies are more common than others in the elderly. These include:

·        Seasonal allergies. You might become more sensitive to mold, pollen, and other airborne allergens that irritate your nasal passages and leave you with itching, sneezing, and a runny nose.

·        Foods. These can develop at any age and can even concern things that you once ate without a reaction. You might develop allergies to wheat, milk, eggs, tree nuts, and more.

·        Medications. The most common medications that can lead to allergic reactions include aspirin, certain antibiotics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen. The more medications you take, the more likely you are to develop these allergies.

·        Latex. Though you might be fine with latex at first, repeated exposure over the years can cause skin irritation, hives, and even anaphylactic shock.

·        Insect stings. Bees, wasps, and fire ants are among the most common insects that can cause a severe reaction in the body if they sting you. You might have had a sting or two in your younger years with little more than the typical localized reaction of pain and swelling. But as you get older, it’s possible that insect stings can cause you even more trouble.

Some allergic reactions can come out of the blue. For instance, a bee sting while you are talking a leisurely walk can suddenly become a matter of life and death. That’s a good reason to have a senior life-saving alert system at your fingertips. Press the medical alarm and stay calm while the monitoring center speaks with you and gets help headed to your location.

Treatments for Allergies and Asthma

Because allergies and asthma can be exacerbated by other medical conditions, it’s important to talk to your doctor to create a specialized treatment plan that takes all of your health conditions into account.

Of course, the best treatment for either condition is being able to avoid treatment at all. That means learning what your triggers are and avoiding them if you can. Sometimes this is entirely possible, such as avoiding shellfish or tree nuts. Other times avoidance isn’t feasible, such as if you are allergic to pollen or dust.

For both allergies and asthma, this Asthma-Friendly Home Checklist can help you rid your home of the allergens that might trigger either condition.

In most cases, allergies can be treated through over-the-counter means. Allergy medications tend to work very well and cause few side effects. Things like Claritin and Zyrtec are commonly recommended or prescribed, and can curb the body’s reactions to pollen and other allergens. Ask your doctor to be certain it’s okay to take these medications in conjunction with other prescriptions you might have.

Treatment for asthma is very different than treatment for allergies. The best treatments for asthma are preventative, which means they prevent the airways from narrowing in the first place. Several medications have been developed for this, including inhaled corticosteroids, oral medications, and combination inhalers. These medications need to be taken every day for several weeks before they have a long-lasting effect.

Rescue medications are also prescribed when you are on long-term treatment for asthma, no matter how well the treatment is working. These rescue medications are often in the form of inhalers and are designed to work very quickly to help relax the airways and allow you to breathe more normally. It’s important to remember that if you must use a rescue inhaler, you might also need to head to the emergency room – sometimes a rescue inhaler is enough to ease the airways temporarily, but you might need further intervention, especially for a severe asthma attack.

A mobile medical alert system with GPS is an excellent idea for seniors with allergies or asthma because this affordable emergency button alarm can get help on the way as soon as possible and give you peace of mind. Knowing that a trained professional is always standing by, around the clock, no matter what your emergency may be, can make a medical issue like an asthma attack seem easier to handle.