Nasal Allergies - Nothing To Sneeze At

By Harvey B. Simon, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

It's easy to dismiss hay feverallergic rhinitis — as a minor nuisance. But it's a legitimate medical problem that is linked to asthma, sinusitis and other more serious problems. Allergic rhinitis is very common — and expensive. It affects about one in five Americans and cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion a year. Fortunately, it's very treatable.

Nosing Around

Your sense of smell comes from your nose. Smell contributes importantly to taste, which is a major player in maintaining good nutrition. Our sense of smell also warns us of dangers ranging from toxic fumes and smoky fires to spoiled food. In addition, the nose:

  • Conditions the air before it reaches the sensitive tissue of your lungs

  • Adds moisture to the air you breathe in by producing large amounts of mucus

  • Warms the air by passing it over a large network of blood vessels

  • Traps small particles, keeping them out of the lungs.

  • Allergic rhinitis can blunt your sense of smell. It can also interfere with the other important functions of the nose.

Types of Rhinitis

  • Allergic rhinitis – This is the most common type. As your nose traps pollen or other particles to which you are sensitive, an inflammatory process starts in your nose. Immune system mast cells in the nasal tissue release chemicals such as histamine and leukotrienes. Blood vessels swell causing nasal congestion, and mucus production soars, which causes a runny nose.

  • Seasonal allergic rhinitis – comes and goes as various plants come into bloom.

  • Rhinitis due to viruses – The common cold is an example.

  • Drug-induced rhinitis – Many drugs can cause rhinitis, including Viagra (and the other ED pills), the alpha-blockers used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, the ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers used for hypertension, and aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

  • Exercise or eating-induced rhinitis – For some people, exercise, eating, or exposure to cold or dry air, air pollutants, or strong smells can trigger rhinitis.

  • Rhinitis medicamentosa – Overuse of the decongestant nose sprays, such as phenylephrine and oxymexazoline, can irritate the nasal membranes. Some people use these sprays for quick relief of allergic rhinitis.

What Are the Symptoms?

Nearly everyone with allergic rhinitis complains of a stuffy, runny nose. Additional symptoms are:

  • Sneezing

  • Post nasal drip, which can trigger coughing

  • An itchy or sore throat

  • Itchy, burning, and watery eyes that may look red due to allergic conjunctivitis

Between 20% and 40% of patients with allergic rhinitis also have asthma. Some patients have nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum or sinusitis.

How Is it Diagnosed?

Most people with allergic rhinitis can diagnose the problem themselves simply by recognizing the typical symptoms. In complicated cases, an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist can check for polyps and other nasal abnormalities. If necessary, allergists can perform skin tests to identify specific allergic triggers; a RAST (radioallergosorbent) test using a blood sample can also help pin down the culprits.

Treating Allergic Rhinitis

There are three strategies for treating allergic rhinitis.

Avoiding your triggers

  • Limit your time outside when pollen counts are high. Ragweed counts usually peak in early midday, grass pollen in late afternoon and early evening. If you have to do yard work during pollen season, wear an N95 mask. Shower, wash your hair, and change your clothes afterwards.

  • Keep your windows and doors closed as much as possible during pollen season.

  • Use air conditioners instead of fans. Drive with your windows and vents closed and your air conditioner on.

For year-round allergic rhinitis:

  • If you have a dog or cat bathe it weekly; keep it off furniture and out of the bedroom.

  • Put pillows, box springs and mattresses in sealed plastic covers to keep out dust mites. Wash bedding in hot water (above 120°F) to kill dust mites.

  • Remove carpeting from your bedroom.

  • Use a dehumidifier to keep relative humidity below 40%.

Your Guide to Allergies

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Did You Know?

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Which one of the following is not among the most common food allergens?

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