More than 50 million Americans each year suffer from allergy-related conditions. Yet myths and misperceptions persist about allergies, the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the country.
“Many early medical beliefs have been proven to be incorrect as research has advanced,” explained allergist David Stukus, MD, at a meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). “Unfortunately, some of these beliefs are still on the internet.” (1)
Don’t let misinformation keep you from getting the best advice and treatment to manage your allergies. Here are 10 common allergy myths, and the true facts behind them:
Myth 1: Allergies Are Just for Kids
Not true, says Neeta Ogden, MD, a fellow with the ACAAI. “You can definitely develop allergies as an adult,” she says. Research presented at the ACAAI’s annual scientific meeting in 2017, for example, showed that nearly half of food-allergic adults developed their allergies in adulthood. (2)
Most people who develop adult-onset allergies usually do so in their twenties and thirties, though it’s possible to develop them at any age, says W. Edward Davis, III, MD, an allergist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. “I’ve even had 85-year-olds walk into my office with allergic rhinitis or hay fever,” he says. “It’s unusual, but I’ve seen it.”
Myth 2: You Can’t Outgrow Allergies
“A lot of people do outgrow allergies over time,” says Princess Ogbogu, MD, chief of the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Ohio. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 60 to 80 percent of young children outgrow allergies to milk or eggs by the age of 16, for instance. (3)
Research has shown that allergic sensitization, or the body’s reaction to allergens, is higher in younger people. A study found that aging was associated with lower levels of sensitization, specifically to dusts mites and cats. (4)
Myth 3: Pollen and Food Allergies Don’t Overlap
People with hay fever can suffer from pollen-food syndrome. Also known as oral allergy syndrome, it occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to allergens found in pollen as well as in certain raw fruits, vegetables, or tree nuts. The following are some examples of types of pollen associated with certain foods:
- Alder: apples, cherries, peaches, pears, celery, almonds, and hazelnuts
- Birch: apples, apricots, cherries, nectarines, tomatoes, carrots, and walnuts
- Grass: melon, oranges, watermelon, potatoes, and peanuts
- Ragweed: bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini
These fruits and vegetables may not trigger an allergic reaction when they’re cooked, but the best way to treat pollen-food syndrome is to avoid these foods in the first place. (5)
Myth 4: You Can’t Tell Colds and Allergies Apart
Colds and allergies are two entirely different things. While the common cold is caused by viruses, seasonal allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to an allergen. Still, colds and allergies can share some symptoms in common, such as a runny nose, sneezing, and congestion.
Other cold symptoms, such as body aches and fever, are not associated with allergies, and the itchy eyes common to an allergic reaction rarely occur with a cold.
Colds and allergies also differ in terms of how long they typically last. “Colds last 7 to 10 days,” Dr. Ogden says. “Allergies are a little more persistent.”
When in doubt, see an allergist to determine if your symptoms are due to allergies, a cold, or something else.
Myth 5: The Only Treatment for Allergies Is to Avoid Triggers
Prevention is key when you have allergies. Whether you have seasonal, persistent, or food allergies, you should always avoid exposure to anything that triggers an allergic reaction.
There is no cure for allergies, but there are several treatment options that can reduce symptoms.
Common remedies include decongestants, antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays, or saline.
Allergy shots, known as immunotherapy, can reduce your sensitivity to certain allergens by exposing the body to small but gradually increasing doses of known triggers. “Allergy shots do a wonderful job, but this treatment takes dedication and time,” Dr. Ogden says. The treatment can also be performed using tablets placed under the tongue, which is known as sublingual immunotherapy. (6)
If you have severe allergic reactions and are at risk for anaphylaxis, then your doctor may recommend that you carry a dose of epinephrine, a chemical that quickly improves breathing in an emergency.
Myth 6: Allergy Medication Should Only Be Taken After You Have Symptoms
The fact is that an allergic reaction may be prevented if medication is taken before symptoms develop. “Many people with seasonal allergies only take medication when they have symptoms,” Dr. Ogden says. “The best thing to do is to start treatment before you have any symptoms to protect your immune system from the assault of pollen.”
Drugs such as nasal steroids or mast cell stabilizers work by blocking the release of immune system chemicals that trigger allergic reactions of the nasal passageways or eyes. These drugs are given to people with seasonal allergies starting about two weeks before allergy season begins.
Myth 7: Short-Haired Breeds Are Fine for People With Pet Allergies
Pet hair and fur are not allergens, but they can collect other allergens, like dust and pollen. If you’re allergic to animals, the real culprits are dander (dead skin cells), saliva, and urine.
You may be less sensitive to certain animal breeds, but there is no truly hypoallergenic pet. Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies, and exposure to a cat can trigger a severe asthma attack. (7)
If your allergy is not severe and you can’t part with a beloved pet, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of having an allergic reaction:
- Limit contact with your pet (for example, keep it out of the bedroom).
- Wash your hands after petting a pet.
- Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) cleaner to reduce airborne allergens.
- Vacuum floors and furniture frequently.
- Bathe pets after they’ve been outdoors to get rid of any pollen on their fur.
- Take allergy medication as directed before symptoms develop.
Myth 8: Moving to Another Part of the Country Can Get Rid of Allergies
Allergens exist virtually everywhere, so relocating probably won’t help you escape allergies.
Remember that regional plants pollinate year-round all over the country, airborne allergens like pollen can travel great distances, and indoor allergens, like pet dander and cockroaches, can exist anywhere.
A change of climate may reduce your exposure to certain allergens. Dust mites, for example, thrive in heat and humidity, so they’re less common in drier climates. But if you have allergies, you also run the risk of eventually developing new allergies in a different environment.
Myth 9: Allergies Don’t Happen in the Winter
Winter may be the best time of year for many people with allergies, but that doesn’t mean allergic reactions can’t occur during the cold months.
Outdoor allergens are less of a concern because “you don’t have pollens in winter,” says Douglas H. Jones, MD, of the Tanner Clinic in Layton, Utah. “But you still have the indoor [allergens],” such as mold spores and dust mites. During the winter holidays, you’re more likely to be exposed to potential allergens, like wreaths, Christmas trees, and smoke from a fireplace or candles.
Cold urticaria, a relatively rare condition that usually occurs in young adults, is an allergy to the cold. When the skin is exposed to colder temperatures, the affected area develops red, itchy hives. In severe cases, it can cause anaphylaxis. (8)
Myth 10: Hay Fever Is Just a Nuisance
Millions of Americans are diagnosed with hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, every year. The condition can be seasonal — triggered by allergens like pollen and mold spores — or occur year-round in response to triggers like dust mites, pets, mold, or cockroaches. There is also nonallergic rhinitis, which does not involve the immune system and can be triggered by irritants in the air, like smoke and perfume, medication, and foods. (9,10)
Hay fever is most commonly associated with sneezing, coughing, nasal congestion, and itchy eyes. Treatment usually involves limiting exposure to triggers and taking medicines, like decongestants or antihistamines, to relieve symptoms.
But hay fever can lead to more serious complications. Its symptoms can disrupt your sleep, and it can make you more susceptible to sinusitis and ear infections. (11)
Hay fever can also trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. “The problem with allergies is that they can lead to other issues, such as asthma, especially during pollen seasons,” says Blanka Kaplan, MD, an adult and pediatric allergist at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.
Additional reporting by Denise Mann and George Vernadakis.