Adult-Onset Seasonal Allergies: Why They’re on the Rise

More people are developing seasonal allergies well into adulthood. An allergist explains what’s happening.

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If you’ve made it to your thirties or forties without developing seasonal allergies, you’re in the clear … right? Not so fast. “We find people in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond [who] have seasonal allergies for their very first time,” says Clifford Bassett, MD, an allergist at NYU Langone Health and author of the book The New Allergy Solution. It’s a myth that you’ll only get allergies as a child or earlier in life. (Here are other seasonal allergy myths that you can safely ignore.)

In fact, adult-onset seasonal allergies is common. In a 2015 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 million adults developed a pollen allergy within that year. What’s even more interesting, is that seasonal allergies are on the rise.

What’s Causing the Increase in Seasonal Allergies?

Climate change

Climate change is associated with rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, which gives plants more time to grow, leading to longer allergy season. “We know because of climate change, pollen seasons are starting earlier—one to two weeks earlier over the last decade—lasting longer into the fall,” says Dr. Bassett. “It’s a longer time for you to be exposed to pollen, that can get into your eyes and nose and cause allergy misery.”

Male plant domination

If you’re suffering from seasonal allergy symptoms, blame the males; the male plants, that is. Pollen comes from the male germ cells of plants, which is what’s released to fertilize the corresponding female plant parts. When pollen is inhaled into human nasal passages, it can trigger allergies.

“We’re overplanting male plants throughout the country. Male plants are the allergy bad guys and there aren’t enough female plants,” says Dr. Bassett. “We call that the battle of the sexes.” According to Dr. Bassett, more male plants are being planted because female plants aren’t as ideal for urban landscapes. “Female plants have more twigs, berry, and debris—they’re messier and slipperier,” he says.

What Increases Your Risk of Developing Seasonal Allergies

Allergic rhinitis, or "hay fever," affects approximately 20% of the population (including children). The risk of developing allergies much higher in people with asthma or eczema, as well as in people who have a family history of asthma or rhinitis. “If you have the genetic predisposition, you may be more likely to have an allergy such as a seasonal allergy,” says Dr. Bassett.

If you think you have seasonal allergies and they’re interfering with your daily function, it’s a good idea to see an allergist. An allergist has advanced training to properly diagnose your condition, and prescribe an allergy treatment and management plan to help you feel and live better. “My job as an allergist is to mitigate, and try and prevent symptoms before they occur whenever possible,” say Dr. Bassett.