What is rhinitis?

Rhinitis is an inflammation of your nasal cavity lining. It can be allergic or nonallergic. It can also be infectious.

Allergic rhinitis can occur when you breathe in an allergen. It can also be seasonal, affecting you at certain times of year, or perennial, affecting you throughout the year.

Allergic rhinitis affects 40 to 60 million Americans, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Nonallergic rhinitis isn’t triggered by a specific allergen, but instead is caused by one or more non-allergy inducing triggers. It can affect you for short or long periods of time.

Symptoms of rhinitis range from mild to severe. They generally affect your nasal cavity, throat, and eyes. They can include:

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis occurs when your immune system detects an allergen, which then triggers an allergic reaction. These substances are harmless to most people.

But if you’re allergic to them, your body responds as if they were harmful. Your immune system reacts to the allergen by producing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This leads to certain cells in the body releasing chemicals involved in the inflammatory response, including one known as histamine. This cascade of events causes the symptoms of rhinitis.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is commonly called “hay fever.” It typically occurs in the spring, summer, or early fall. Depending on your allergens, you may also experience it multiple times per year. It’s usually triggered by mold (fungus) spores in the air or pollen from specific plants, such as:

  • grasses
  • trees
  • flowers
  • weeds

Perennial, or year-round, allergic rhinitis can be triggered by a variety of allergens, including:

  • pet dander and saliva
  • cockroach droppings
  • mold
  • dust mite droppings

Nonallergic rhinitis

Nonallergic rhinitis may be more challenging to diagnose. It isn’t triggered by allergens and doesn’t involve the immune system response that occurs in allergic rhinitis. Potential triggers include:

  • foreign material in your nose
  • infections, such as cold viruses
  • certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and some blood pressure-reducing medications
  • certain foods and odors
  • smoke, fumes, and other air pollutants
  • weather changes
  • hormonal changes
  • stress

Nonallergic rhinitis may be related to structural problems in your nasal cavity, such as polyp formation or a deviated nasal septum with narrowed nasal passages.

If you have a personal or family history of eczema or asthma, you’re more likely to experience allergic rhinitis. If you’re regularly exposed to environmental irritants, such as secondhand smoke, you’re also more likely to experience nonallergic rhinitis.

To diagnose allergic rhinitis, your doctor performs a detailed history and physical exam. They may also refer you to an allergist for allergy testing, using a blood test or skin test. This can help your doctor determine if your rhinitis is allergic or nonallergic.

The best way to treat allergic rhinitis is to avoid your allergen. If you’re allergic to pet dander, mold, or other household allergens, take steps to remove those substances from your home.

If you’re allergic to pollen, limit your time outdoors when the plants that trigger your symptoms are blooming. You should also take steps to keep pollen out of your home and car. Try closing your windows and installing a HEPA filter on your air conditioner.

If you can’t avoid your allergen, medications can help relieve your symptoms. For example, your doctor may encourage you to use over-the-counter or prescription intranasal corticosteroid spray, antihistamines, decongestants, or other medications.

In some cases, they may recommend immunotherapy, such as allergy shots or under-the-tongue tab formulations, to lower your sensitivity to your allergen.

If you have nonallergic rhinitis, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications such as a nasal corticosteroid spray, nasal saline spray, nasal antihistamine spray, or decongestants to treat it.

If a structural defect in your nasal cavity is responsible for complicating your symptoms, your doctor may recommend corrective surgery.

Rhinitis is inconvenient and uncomfortable but generally poses little health risk:

  • Allergic rhinitis usually clears when your exposure to your allergen has passed.
  • Nonallergic rhinitis may last for shorter or longer periods of time, but it can also be managed with symptom-relieving treatment and avoiding triggers.

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific diagnosis, treatment options, and long-term outlook.