Allergic rhinitis is soreness or irritation of the mucous membranes that line the nose. The mucus, a thin clear liquid, traps small particles and bacteria that are drawn into the nose when a person breathes.
Allergic rhinitis happens when an allergen (an allergy-producing substance) causes your body to defend itself by producing antibodies. When an allergen and an antibody combine, your body releases histamine and other chemical substances into your bloodstream, which causes an allergic response. Some common allergens are:
- Mold (microscopic fungi)
- Animal dander (hair and skin shed by pets)
Symptoms of allergic rhinitis are similar to that of a common cold. But, unlike common cold symptoms, allergic rhinitis can last for more than 8-10 days and may include:
- A stuffy nose or a runny nose
- Itchy nose, itchy eyes or watery eyes
- Coughing caused by clear mucus running down the back of your throat
- Nasal voice
- Breathing noisily
- Feeling chronically tired
- Poor appetite
- Frequent headaches
- Some difficulty in hearing and smelling
- Children who have allergic rhinitis might have dark circles under their eyes, or use the palm of their hand to push their nose up as they try to stop the itching (called the “allergic salute”)
The best treatment for your allergy is to avoid the allergen. When this is not possible, medication can usually control the symptoms of a reaction. These medications are used to treat allergic rhinitis:
- Antihistamines block the action of the histamine (the substance which triggers the reaction). They are considered the "mainstay of treatment." They are more effective when taken round the clock. They can make you feel drowsy, especially if you combine them with alcohol. Other side effects include dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia, tremors, nausea and dry mouth. If any of the side effects are a problem, discuss them with your practitioner.
- Decongestants can give short-term relief from nasal stuffiness. However, many decongestants promote histamine release. This can cause a "rebound" effect that ultimately makes you even more congested than before. Use them only on a short-term, special occasion basis (i.e., unable to sleep for several nights, a test, a date, etc.).
- Corticosteroids may lessen your allergic reaction by preventing body cells from responding to histamine. For allergic rhinitis, these compounds are administered via a nasal spray. Minimal side effects have been found even with chronic use at customary dosage. For profound allergy symptoms, a one-time, very short course of systemic cortisteroid may be considered as a last resort.
- Cromolyn sodium inhibits the body's release of histamine after exposure to an antigen, which can lessen or stop the allergic response. If you are allergic to a substance that you are exposed to occasionally, you can take this medication prior to exposure. Side effects are minimal. Unfortunately, not everyone is helped by this medication.
- Immunotherapy (or allergy shots) are also used in cases of allergic rhinitis. It is effective only when a specific allergen can be identified. Since you are allergic to the substance injected, you may experience severe allergic responses. Therefore, if you undergo immunotherapy, you should work closely with your physician and report any symptoms of reaction to the injection. Immunotherapy is not a "quick fix" and may take six months before effectiveness is noted. It is very helpful for many people.
You cannot prevent an allergy, but you can prevent a reaction. The most effective method you can use to prevent a reaction is to avoid the allergen that triggers your allergic response. Try these steps:
- Although it’s best not to have pets when you have allergic rhinitis, washing your pet once a week and keeping it out of the bedroom and off the furniture will help
- Put pillows and mattresses in sealed plastic covers that keep out dust mites
- Wash sheets in hot water every week
- Feathers, foam rubber, or pillows more than five years old are often allergens
- Keep windows closed so that there is not much pollen and mold in the house
- Wearing a mask when cleaning the house
- Rid your home of indoor plants
- Use synthetic materials for your bedding, pillow and blankets
- Sleep with the head of bed elevated to relieve nasal congestion
- Observe good health by exercising daily, eating balanced food and avoiding pollutants
- Stop smoking
- Move out decorative pillows, books, and stuffed animals
- Store clothing inside so that dust does not settle on it