Allergic rhinitis, also called hay fever, is the group of uncomfortable symptoms that occur when your body is exposed to a specific allergen. An allergen is a typically harmless substance, such as grass or dust, which causes an allergic reaction. Pollen is the most common allergen for most people.
When your body comes into contact with an allergen, it releases histamine. This is a natural chemical that is actually intended to defend the body from the allergen. However, this chemical causes many uncomfortable symptoms (allergic rhinitis) that include runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes.
This condition can interfere with your everyday quality of life, so it is important to find treatment.
Common allergens that can cause this condition include pollen, dust, animal dander (old skin), cat saliva, and mold.
Pollen is the biggest allergen culprit, especially during certain times of the year. Tree and flower pollen is more prevalent in the spring, while grasses and weeds produce more pollen in the summer and fall months.
Allergies can happen to anyone, but they tend to be genetic. You are more likely to develop allergic rhinitis if your family has a history of allergies. According to the National Institutes of Health, the chances are even higher if your mother has a history of allergy problems (NIH).
There are also substances that can trigger this condition or make it worse. These include:
- cigarette smoke
- cold temperatures
- wood smoke
The most common symptoms of this condition include:
- runny nose
- stuffy nose
- itchy nose
- sore throat
- itchy and watery eyes
- dark under-eye circles
- frequent headaches
- eczema-type symptoms (extremely dry, itchy skin that often blisters)
- hives (red, sometimes itchy, bumps on the skin)
- excessive fatigue
Minor allergies usually only require a physical exam. However, your doctor may recommend specific tests to help determine the best treatment and preventative measures.
Skin prick is one of the most commonly used tests. During this test, your doctor places a variety of substances onto your skin to see how your body reacts to each one. Usually, a small red bump appears if you are allergic to a substance.
Another common allergy test is a blood test, sometimes referred to as a RAST test. This test measures the amount of immunoglobin (Ig) e antibodies to particular allergens that are present in your blood.
Allergic rhinitis may be classified as seasonal or perennial (year-round).
This condition is treated with one or more of the following:
- eye drops
- nasal sprays
- immunotherapy (allergy shots)
Antihistamines effectively treat allergies. They can also help prevent this condition because they block histamine formation in the body. Some over-the-counter versions may be helpful, but remember to always talk to your doctor before starting a new medication, especially if you take other medications or have other medical conditions.
Decongestants are used over a short period of time to help relieve stuffy nose and sinus pressure. Ask your doctor before use if you have high blood pressure.
You can temporarily use eye drops and nasal sprays to relieve itchiness and other symptoms related to allergies. However, don’t use either product on a long-term basis.
Your doctor may recommend immunotherapy if you have severe allergies. Commonly known as allergy shots, this treatment plan is used in conjunction with medications to control your symptoms. These shots are intended to decrease your immune response to particular allergens over time.
The best way to prevent allergy symptoms is to manage your allergies before your body has a chance to adversely respond to substances. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends starting medications before seasonal allergy attacks. For example, if you are sensitive to tree pollen in the spring, then you may want to start taking antihistamines before an allergic reaction has the chance to occur (AAAAI).
Another effective way to prevent allergic rhinitis is to steer clear of the allergens that cause your symptoms. For instance, stay indoors when pollen counts are high, and take showers immediately after being outside. Also, clean your home to remove pet dander, mold, and dust.
The outcome of treatment depends on your unique condition. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually not severe, and can be managed well with medications. However, severe forms of this condition will likely require long-term treatment. Some patients may even develop sinusitis (inflamed nasal passages that can cause breathing difficulties and pain) or asthma along with this condition.