Ah, spring. Or perhaps we should say: ah-CHOO, spring! Even though spring brings some of the nicest weather of the year, it also brings a veritable stew of allergens. For many, spring means flowers, budding trees and lots and lots of antihistamines, tissues and uncomfortable symptoms. This can be the case for people of any age, but for seniors, allergies can sometimes be hard to diagnose.
“Seniors are not immune from allergies,” says Barbara Harrison, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Westwood, a Memory Care Assisted Living community in Westwood, MA. “In fact, research suggests that our immune systems become more susceptible to developing allergies as we age. But many seniors and their loved ones may not realize this is an issue because the individual may be managing chronic conditions that make it hard to diagnose and treat seasonal allergies.”
Seasonal allergies can be more than just annoying, Barbara explains. “Some seniors who have chronic health conditions like asthma or Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can have life-threatening complications due to seasonal allergies,” she says. “It’s important for caregivers to understand how to diagnose allergies in their loved ones as well as find beneficial ways to treat, manage and avoid symptoms.”
While the classic signs of allergies are fairly easy to notice – runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes or noses, watery or red eyes – allergies can also affect the skin, sinuses and even a senior’s digestive system. This can greatly reduce quality of life, and Barbara warns that some over-the-counter antihistamines can have dangerous side effects. Always be sure to consult a physician before taking medications.
“Whenever possible, the best course of action is to avoid being triggered by allergens,” she says. “Managing the symptoms is a band-aid for the situation – if the base problem isn’t taken care of, your loved one will continue to be plagued by their allergies.”
Recognize allergy symptoms.
The first step in helping manage your loved one’s allergies is by recognizing that they have them. Be on the lookout for the traditional signs – congestion, sneezing, coughing, itchy and watery eyes – even if your loved one hasn’t had allergies in the past, be aware that adult-onset allergies can occur at any time.
Tell their doctor.
Allergies in seniors can often be missed by doctors simply because your loved one’s physician may be more focused on treating and diagnosing larger health issues. If you suspect that your loved one is suffering from allergies, be sure to let the doctor know. Since allergies have a significant impact on the health and lives of older people, it’s important to get your loved one treated as soon as possible.
Avoid certain antihistamines.
Certain forms of antihistamines can be dangerous for seniors – and unfortunately, they’re some of the most popular over-the-counter solutions. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) can have side effects like confusion, dizziness, dry mouth and eyes, confusion, drowsiness and other unwanted symptoms. Besides these side effects being discombobulating, they can also contribute to falls, urinary tract infections, mood and behavioral changes and potentially dangerous interactions with commonly prescribed medications.
“This is why it’s so important to speak to your doctor or pharmacist about your loved one’s allergies instead of automatically treating them yourself with an over-the-counter option,” says Barbara. “A nasal steroid or some form of topical medication will probably be a safer bet that your doctor can prescribe. It’s always good to make sure that whatever your loved one takes, it will work safely and effectively with any other medications your loved one is currently taking.”
Stay inside when levels are high.
Minimizing exposure to the things that trigger your loved one’s allergies is the best prevention. This can be difficult to do, especially when it’s a nice day and you’d like to throw open the windows and get some fresh air. Before going outside, check the weather – many local weather reports (and some national ones) will have allergy forecasts or pollen counts as part of their reporting. If you notice that levels are high in your area, it’s best to stay inside, close the windows and run the air conditioner. (Reminder: this is a good time to change your furnace filter.)
Protect yourself when outside.
Obviously, you can’t stay inside all spring and summer. So when you and your loved one go out, take steps to minimize any reactions. Wear sunglasses, which will protect eyes as much as possible. Once you return home, make sure to immediately wash your hands, and even shower and change into clean clothes. This will get rid of any allergens you’ve brought in with you and hopefully avoid additional exposure.
Keep a clean house.
During allergy season, it’s a good idea to vacuum and dust fairly regularly, as allergens can quickly build up in a house. If you do open your windows, make sure to only do it on days with a low pollen count. It’s also a good idea to service your air conditioner and equip it with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Depending on the severity of your loved one’s allergies, you may want to invest in a whole-house purifier that eliminates as many allergens as possible. If that isn’t feasible, consider investing in portable air purifiers that you can put in the most-used rooms in your home.
Add some anti-inflammatory foods into your loved one’s diet.
Certain studies have shown that eating foods that fight inflammation – like walnuts, apples, leafy greens, ginger and foods with vitamin C – can help reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. Try adding some of these items into your loved one’s diet in order to help boost their immune system. At the same time, go light on foods that cause inflammation like sugar, excessive alcohol, fatty meats and processed foods.
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