Do you sneeze in the spring and/or fall? Does the mere thought of pet dander make your nose itch? Chances are you have allergic rhinitis.
WHAT IS ALLERGIC RHINITIS?
Allergic rhinitis is the medical term for nasal allergies. “Rhinitis” is nothing more than a fancy word for “runny nose.” But if you experience nasal allergies, you know the symptoms go far beyond a mere runny nose.
When the body detects an intruder, such as a virus, the immune system swings into action. It will release a cascade of hormones to neutralize the intruder. Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes overreacts to harmless substances, treating them with the full force normally reserved for truly bad stuff, like bacterial infections. When the body generates an immune response to a harmless substance, that substance is called an allergen.
If you have allergic rhinitis, it means your immune system becomes hyperactive when exposed to various types of inhaled allergens. For instance, pollen, in and of itself, is not harmful to the body. But if the immune system perceives pollen as a threat, then the fight is on.
THE IMMUNE RESPONSE: STEP BY STEP
Usually, allergic rhinitis elicits a mild to moderate immune reaction. Here’s how it works.
- You inhale an allergen, such as pollen.
- The body views the allergen as a threat.
- The immune system releases histamine and other chemical substances into the bloodstream in an attempt to thwart the “threat.”
- These chemicals penetrate various body tissues causing physical symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes and/or mild wheezing.
Anyone can develop allergic rhinitis at any time during their life. However, you’re at greater risk for experiencing allergic rhinitis if either of your parents (and especially your mother) also had it. People with allergic rhinitis may be at greater risk of developing asthma, but this link remains unclear.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF ALLERGIC RHINITIS
Once you’ve developed allergic rhinitis, you’re stuck with it for life. There is no cure, but you can take certain steps to minimize and treat the symptoms of the condition.
- Know your allergens. If your trigger is mold, be sure to keep your living environment as mold-free as possible. If your trigger is dust mites, wash your bedding frequently and vacuum your mattress. If your trigger is pollen, avoid going outdoors on high-pollen days. You can download a pollen-cast app to your smartphone to help you plan your outdoor activities for low-pollen days.
- Saline nasal irrigation. You can literally wash allergens out of your nose by carrying a bottle of saline nasal mist. Because this product contains no medication, you can use it as often as you’d like to rinse pollen out of your nasal cavity. Some people also employ a device called a “neti pot.” This type of nasal irrigation can be effective, but be sure to use only distilled water in the pot and clean it thoroughly after each use to avoid any build-up of mold or bacteria.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications. A first line of defense against histamine reactions, OTC allergy pills can provide relief for symptoms like a runny nose and itchy eyes. If pills alone don’t do the trick, you can try an OTC corticosteroid nasal spray. This medication addresses the immune response beyond histamine, and so provides broader symptom relief.
- Immunotherapy. Often referred to as “allergy shots,” immunotherapy for allergic rhinitis can effectively reduce your body’s immune response by repeatedly exposing it to low doses of the substances you’re allergic to. And today you can avoid the “shot” altogether: sublingual allergy immunotherapy is now available in the U.S. Similar to allergy shots, sublingual immunotherapy uses a small, liquid dose of an allergen placed under your tongue to desensitize your immune system. No needles required!
ALLERGIC RHINITIS: NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT
Allergic rhinitis can be more than a nuisance for some people, causing severe fatigue, headaches and sore throat. If using OTC medications doesn’t significantly clear up your symptoms, you should head to your primary care provider to figure out how to get a handle on your nasal allergies.