Allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as “hay fever,” happens when you breathe in something you are allergic to. The inside of your nose becomes inflamed or swollen. When this happens, the body’s immune system overreacts to specific particles such as plant pollens, molds, dust mites, animal hair, industrial chemicals, tobacco smoke, foods, medicines, and even insect venom.
Allergic rhinitis affects 40 million people in the United States and is an extremely common condition, affecting approximately 20% of the population. While allergic rhinitis is not a life-threatening condition, complications can occur and the condition can impair one’s quality of life leading to a number of indirect costs. Recently, the total direct and indirect cost of allergic rhinitis was estimated at around $5 billion annually.
What are the symptoms of allergic rhinitis?
Signs of allergic rhinitis are similar to signs of a common cold. But, unlike symptoms for the common cold, allergic rhinitis can last for more than 8-10 days. Symptoms include:
-stuffy or runny nose
-itchy or watery nose
-itchy or watery eyes
-coughing (caused by clear mucus running down the back of the throat)
-feeling of a ‘permanent cold’ that never goes away
-headaches and earache
-constant sore throats and postnasal drip
-sleep disturbances and snoring
-loss of taste and smell
Children who have allergic rhinitis might have dark circles under their eyes known as Allergic shiners” (related to nasal congestion). They may also use either the palm or the back of their hand to push their nose up as they try to stop the itching (called the “allergic salute”).
What causes allergic rhinitis?
Like our previous discussion, allergic rhinitis is caused by substances that trigger allergies, called allergens. These allergens are found both indoors and outdoors. When allergic rhinitis is caused by common outdoor allergens, like mold or trees, grass and weed pollens, it is often referred to as seasonal allergies, or “hay fever.”
Allergic rhinitis may also be triggered by allergens found in your house like animal dander (tiny skin flakes and saliva), indoor mold, and cockroach or house dust mite droppings.
If you experience symptoms during spring, you may be allergic to tree pollens which we will discuss in detail further on.
To know for certain what causes your symptoms, an allergist or immunologist can perform skin tests to determine what you are allergic to.
What are my choices or treatment?
Over-the-counter antihistamines and nose sprays can help at first, but they can have a number of unpleasant side effects. These antihistamines can make you feel tired and drowsy while nasal sprays can make your stuffiness worse.
Doctor-prescribed nose sprays and antihistamines are different types of medication and are very helpful for controlling long-term symptoms. Some are safe for young children and all are safe for adults.
Consultation with an allergist will determine the medicine and treatment that is right for you.
Can I do anything to avoid getting allergic rhinitis?
As prevention is worth a pound of cure, there are some things you can do in your house that might make your symptoms better if not avoid them altogether:
For those who have rhinitis, it may be best not to have pets. But if it cannot be helped, make sure to wash your pet (especially if hairy and furry) once a week. Keeping them out of the bedroom and off the furniture will help as well.
Put pillows and mattresses in sealed plastic covers that keep out dust mites, and wash sheets in hot water weekly. Washing machines at the local Laundromat will have hot enough water to kill the dust mites.
Keep windows closed. If possible, get an air conditioner and run a dehumidifier, so that there will not be so many pollens and molds getting in the house.
What are allergy shots?
For some patients, allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, are very helpful, and safe. Allergy shots help how your body handles allergens by injecting into your body small amounts of the substances causing your allergy. Over the period of the therapy, your body will learn to accept the allergen without overreacting to it (which is the reason for the allergic reactions).
Your doctor may talk to you about allergy shots if your allergy symptoms are very bad and if they happen for most of the year. You can also consider this if you are constantly around the allergens (such as pollens and dust mites) and if in spite medicines, you are still symptomatic.