Can You Outgrow an Allergy? See the Science
Allergies… if you have them, you know they can make you miserable. From seasonal allergies that cause your eyes to water and itch and your nose to run to food allergies that can result in dangerous and even deadly reactions. If you suffer, you surely want relief. And you may wonder if time heals all allergies. In other words, can you outgrow an allergy? Or is it a life sentence?
What Are Allergies?
Allergies are common in society—affecting more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone. They’re the unfortunate response to something you come into contact with that your immune system sees as a threat. The body responds to the perceived threat by producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which trigger the release of histamine. Histamine, in turn, causes the allergic symptoms many of us are familiar with.
Allergies can start at any age, with triggers including:
- Dust mites
- Dog or cat dander, saliva, or urine
- Insect bites and stings
- Various drugs like antibiotics, ibuprofen, aspirin, sulfa drugs, and more
- And foods like peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, and shellfish.
The immune system (over)reaction can range from rashes, hives, and fevers to severe, even life-threatening, anaphylaxis. Allergies—especially to foods or drugs—aren’t something to take lightly! And mild allergies may get worse over time.
Serious allergic reactions (such as shortness of breath or wheezing) tend to occur within minutes to up to an hour after exposure. Other reactions, especially itching, rashes, or hives, may take days or weeks to develop.
Anaphylaxis is the most alarming as it can be life-threatening. It causes widespread dysfunction in the body. Symptoms include:
- Tightening of the airways
- Trouble breathing
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Abdominal cramps
- Weak, rapid pulse
- A rapid drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- And possibly death.
Allergy or Intolerance?
Especially when it comes to food, many people interchange the words allergies and intolerance, but they aren’t the same thing. An allergy triggers the immune system. A food intolerance, on the other hand, affects the digestive system. For instance, an intolerance shows up when the digestive system can’t effectively break down a particular food, which can result in bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, and perhaps a lack of energy or feeling sluggish.
Can You Outgrow an Allergy?
Unfortunately, as with so many questions, the answer is: it depends. Between 6 and 8% of children suffer from food allergies, while only around 2 to 5% of adults suffer. This is because children often outgrow food allergies by their 16th birthday, especially to wheat, cow’s milk, and eggs. An estimated 60 to 80% of kids outgrow allergies to milk and eggs by this age.1 In addition, sensitivity to allergies like pollen, dust mites, and cats can decrease after the age of 20.2
Other food allergies are more likely to continue through adulthood. Peanut, tree nut, and shellfish are the most common allergies to affect adults (around 2% of the population). And people with those allergies must remain vigilant to avoid the trigger.3
Some adults have reported lost clinical symptoms to some allergens (such as penicillin), only to develop them again later. And sometimes, allergies don’t appear at all until you’re older. Recent research, for example, found that nearly half of all food allergies didn’t develop until adulthood.4 Adult-onset allergies typically show up in the 20s and 30s, but it’s not unheard of for allergies to appear even in someone in their 80s.
Dealing with Allergies
Many of us live with allergies, such as to pollen or mosquito bites, and do our best to address symptoms with natural and over-the-counter products promising some relief. Common remedies for seasonal allergies, for example, are decongestants, antihistamines, saline, or nasal sprays.
If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies, don’t wait until you’re suffering from symptoms. Starting with your preferred medication before you know allergens will hit your area may help protect your immune system and prevent symptoms altogether. Start about two weeks before allergy season hits for the best results. This may help you avoid complications from allergies like sleep disruptions, sinusitis, ear infections, and asthma attacks.5
If, however, you suspect you have a potentially more serious allergy, such as to a medication, food, or flying insect, it’s best to work with a qualified allergist.6 They may recommend allergy testing via skin or blood (to detect IgE levels). And they may recommend carrying a dose of epinephrine for severe allergic reactions to help rapidly improve breathing in case of exposure.
Some allergists have found success in helping people build a tolerance to common allergens by starting with a minuscule dose and slowly building up. These specialized doctors can support you through the appropriate testing and solutions, such as allergy shots or sublingual tablets (known as immunotherapy). However, this approach should only be done with the help of professionals, especially if there’s any risk of a severe reaction.
While some folks, especially children, are fortunate enough to outgrow an allergy, many others don’t. Doctors and researchers don’t yet know why some people leave their allergies behind and others aren’t as lucky. They also can’t explain why allergies can vary even in the same person. For instance, you may go into a sneezing fit when exposed to your sister’s cat but barely notice when your best friend’s cat is around. Or you may find that your seasonal allergies are worse (or better) after moving or from one season to the next.
Will you be one of the fortunate ones who outgrows an allergy? We hope so. If not, at least there are options to help ease your suffering and perhaps even save your life.