Getting Your First Cat As an Adult? Prepare for the Sniffles

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Based on a recent study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, it seems that a lot of people are going to be taking stock of their Kleenex reserves — and not because they're suffering from the ill effects of flu season.

So what's this all about? Well, the study found that people who got their first cat as an adult were almost twice as likely to develop an allergy to felines than those who were cat-less.

Why Having Childhood Cats May Have Helped You

The news isn't too surprising, since developing this type of allergy requires repeated exposure to an allergen. Still, if the odds seem a bit daunting, keep in mind that there are other factors to consider: The same study concluded that adults are less likely to develop allergic reactions to a new feline if they grew up with a cat — although adults who already have other allergies or asthma are at an even higher risk of developing a cat allergy.

“An adult who had a cat as a child, if not already sensitized [allergic] to cats, is less likely to develop cat sensitization,” says one of the study's authors, Dr. Mario Olivieri, M.D., of the University Hospital of Verona in Italy. “That person's risk of becoming sensitized decreases by 40 percent.”

Dr. Henry Legere, M.D., a board certified allergist at Greater Austin Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Austin, Texas, agrees with that statement: “Some studies have suggested that being exposed to just the right amount of pet allergens, at just the right age, can decrease the likelihood of developing allergies.”

Not Everyone Shows Obvious Symptoms

The symptoms of cat allergies can range from the mild — a few sneezes — to the more severe, including swollen eyes, a wheezing cough and even tightness in the chest. “Some patients can have anaphylactic episodes when exposed to cats,” says Dr. Legere, who adds that this is rare. “I've had only one or two families that needed to find another home for their pet because they had a child with life-threatening, cat-induced asthma attacks.”

However, not everyone who has a cat allergy necessarily shows symptoms. People who are allergic to cat dander respond to exposure by releasing immunoglobulin E, which is what allergists look for when testing blood or skin to confirm an allergy. In Dr. Olivieri's study, only 40 percent of those whose blood tested positive for sensitivity to cats actually reported symptoms.

How to Combat Cat Allergies

If the increased risk still has you as nervous as a you-know-what on a hot tin roof, there are ways to share your home with a cat — happily wheeze-free. While HEPA air filters, minimal carpeting, clean floors and weekly kitty baths can all help to reduce the amount of dander in your home, one of the best things to do is to keep your cat out of the bedroom. In Dr. Olivieri's study, none of the subjects whose bedrooms were feline-free zones developed a cat allergy.

Dr. Legere offers another bit of advice: "If your symptoms aren't severe, you may be able to minimize them with medications or allergy shots.” After all, he adds, most people consider their pet a part of the family, so a few trips to the allergist may be a worthwhile trade-off if you want to come home to a purring pal.

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