Allergic rhinitis is an allergic reaction to airborne particles that
primarily affects the nose and eyes. There are two types of allergic rhinitis:
seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and perennial allergic rhinitis, which
occurs year-round. Allergens (substances that cause allergic reactions)
responsible for allergic rhinitis usually enter the body by inhalation. Hay
fever is caused by outdoor allergens, and perennial allergic rhinitis by indoor
allergens. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis resemble a cold, except that they occur
only at particular times: during certain seasons or weather patterns (hay
fever), and around certain animals or small household pests (perennial allergic
rhinitis). Millions of people are affected by allergic rhinitis. Many people who
have allergic rhinitis also have asthma.
Signs and Symptoms
Allergic rhinitis can cause many symptoms, including the
Stuffy, runny nose; discharge is generally thin and clear
Red, itchy, and watery eyes
Itchy mouth, throat, ears, and face
Sore throat (called pharyngitis)
Feelings of fullness and buzzing in the ears (called tinnitus)
Partial loss of the senses of hearing, smell, and taste
Dark circles under the eyes
The body's immune system is designed to fight harmful substances like
bacteria and viruses. But in allergic rhinitis, the immune system overresponds
to substances that are harmless to most people -- like pollen, mold, and pet
dander -- and launches an assault. This attack is called an allergic reaction.
In an allergic reaction, substances called histamine (among other chemicals) are
released. Histamines contribute to the symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis is caused by an allergic reaction to pollens and
spores (depending on the season and area) as they are carried on the wind.
Ragweed - the most common seasonal allergen
Fungus (mold growing on dead leaves)
Year-round allergic rhinitis is caused by an allergic reaction to airborne
particles from the following:
Animal dander (skin flakes)
Dust and household mites
Molds growing on wall paper, house plants, carpeting, and upholstery
Having other allergies, such as food allergies or eczema
Exposure to second hand cigarette smoke
Your family and personal history of allergy is important in diagnosing
allergic rhinitis. Questions you may be asked include the following: Do symptoms
vary according to time of day or the season? Do you have a pet or are you
exposed to one? Have you made changes to your diet? Are you taking any
The doctor will likely examine your nose and nasal secretions. Allergy
testing may reveal specific allergen(s). Skin testing is the most common method
of allergy testing. This may include scratch, patch, or other tests. In a
scratch test, for example, small amounts of suspected allergens are applied to
the skin with a needle prick or scratch. If there is an allergy, a hive (swollen
reddened area) forms within about 20 minutes. You should not take antihistamines
for at least 12 to 72 hours before the test. Occasionally, the suspected
allergen is dissolved and dropped onto the lower eyelid of the eye as a means of
testing for allergies.
In children, observing behavior is helpful in diagnosis. Symptoms of allergic
rhinitis may cause a child to wiggle the nose and push the nose upward with the
palm of the hand to clear obstruction.
Taking the following steps to reduce your exposure to allergens may prevent
If you have hay fever, during days or seasons when airborne allergens are
Stay indoors, and if possible, close the windows
Use an air conditioner
Avoid using fans that draw in air from outdoors
Avoid air drying your clothes
Bathe or shower and change your clothes after being outside
Pollination occurs at different times of day for different plants. For
example, ragweed pollen is highest in the late morning, and grasses are highest
in the afternoon. Most trees produce pollen in the spring, grasses and flowers
usually produce pollen during the summer, and ragweed and other late-blooming
plants produce pollen during late summer and early autumn.
If you have perennial allergic rhinitis:
Cover your pillows and mattress with dust mite covers
Use an air purifier
Avoid pets and other triggers
Reducing allergy symptoms is the goal of treatment, and the best way to do
this is to avoid exposure to allergens (see Preventive Care). Complete avoidance
of environmental allergens may be impossible, but exposure may be minimized in
many cases. For hay fever, this may be accomplished by staying indoors in air
conditioned rooms on days when the count of your particular allergen is high in
the environment. For perennial allergic rhinitis this means using dust mite
covers for pillows and mattresses, and using an air purifier.
Drug therapies (such as antihistamines,
decongestants, and nasal corticosteroid sprays) may be used to control mild to
moderate symptoms and certain complementary and alternative therapies may also
be used to successfully treat the symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Desensitization (immunotherapy, or "allergy shots") is occasionally
recommended. It includes regular injections of the allergen (substance causing
the allergic reaction) given in increasing doses (each dose is slightly larger
than the previous dose). The aim of desensitization is to gradually accustom the
immune system to the allergen so that it no longer reacts to that substance.
This is done very slowly and carefully, starting with minute amounts of the
substance, in a controlled setting (namely, your doctor's office).
In addition to following these important treatment steps, certain
dietary changes may help prevent or
improve symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Plus,
acupuncture therapy brings significant
relief to many people who have allergic rhinitis as does
Preventive measures may be taken to avoid symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Although it may be unrealistic for people with hay fever to stay indoors during
all high pollen and ragweed times, other measures can reduce chances of
symptoms. If possible, you should:
Choose air conditioning over window fans
Avoid working with compost, raking leaves, or walking through uncut
For perennial allergic rhinitis, you can take the following measures.
To reduce mold:
Clean moldy surfaces. Mold is often found in air conditioners,
humidifiers, dehumidifiers, swamp coolers, and refrigerator drip pans
Reduce indoor humidity to less than 50% using air conditioners and
Fix water leaks and clean up water damage
Put windows in or otherwise ventilate kitchens, bathrooms, and crawl
spaces; vent laundry dryers to the outside
Put flooring in crawl spaces
Avoid carpets and upholstered furniture
Wash bedding every week in hot water
Keep stuffed toys out of the bedroom
Encase pillows and beds with allergen-proof covers
Medication is recommended based on the type of allergic rhinitis. Perennial
allergic rhinitis may require daily medication, and if you have seasonal
allergic rhinitis (hay fever) you may be advised to start medications a few
weeks before the pollen season.
Preventive Agents and Methods
Anti-inflammatory agents— prevent severe
allergic rhinitis; examples include nasal corticosteroid (steroid) sprays,
leukotriene-antagonists (namely, zafirlukast and montelukast), and nasal
Antihistamines—relieve sneezing and itching;
may prevent nasal congestion before an allergy attack; available by prescription
Many over-the-counter and prescription decongestants are available in tablet
or nasal (inhaled) form.
Oral decongestants—commonly contain the
active ingredient pseudoephedrine; side effects, such as nervousness,
drowsiness, blood pressure changes, are more likely with oral than nasal
Nasal decongestants—applied directly into the
nasal passages with a spray, gel, drops, or vapors; available as long-acting (6
to 12 hours) or short-acting; work faster than oral decongestants and with fewer
side effects. With extended use, nasal decongestants can cause the nasal
passages to swell, and this can begin a cycle of dependency. Avoid using nasal
decongestants for more than 3 days in a row, unless specifically instructed by
your doctor, and avoid them altogether if you have emphysema or chronic
Additional Treatment for Itchy Eyes
Antihistamine eye drops—relieve both nasal
and eye symptoms; examples include azelastine, olopatadine, ketotifen, and
Decongestant eye drops—such as phenylephrine
Eye drops may cause stinging or even headache.
Surgery and Other Procedures
Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are often recommended to anyone 7 years and
older who has severe allergy symptoms or who also has asthma. Immunotherapy
stimulates the immune system by regularly injecting minute doses of an allergen
over a long period of time, causing the body to become less sensitive to the
Immunotherapy is generally very effective, and it has the following
Specific allergens are targeted
Sensitivity may be reduced in airways in the lungs as well as in the
New allergies in children may be less likely to develop
Asthma in children with allergies may be less likely to develop
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
If you have any food allergies, eliminate those items from your diet. Even if
you don't have any identified food allergy, reducing the intake of foods that
may stimulate inflammation (such as meats, full fat dairy products, sugar, and
highly processed foods) may improve your symptoms.
Although not all experts agree, bromelain supplements may help suppress
cough, reduce nasal mucus associated with sinusitis, and relieve the swelling
and inflammation caused by hay fever. This supplement is often administered with
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids have a longstanding history of folk use for allergies.
They are essential fatty acids (EFAs), meaning that they are needed by the body
and must be obtained from the diet. People who are prone to allergies may
require more EFAs and often have difficulty converting linoleic acid (an
inflammation-provoking type of omega-6 fatty acid) to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA;
an anti-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid). In fact, women and infants who are
prone to allergies appear to have lower levels of GLA in breast milk and blood.
Studies on the use of EFAs to prevent allergic reactions or reduce their
magnitude have had mixed results. Whether taking a GLA supplement improves your
symptoms, therefore, may be very individual. Work with your healthcare provider
to first determine if it is safe for you to try GLA and then follow your allergy
symptoms closely for any signs of change. GLA is found in spirulina and seed
oils of evening primrose, black currant, borage, and fungal oils.
In terms of dietary changes relative to EFAs, you should try to eat foods
rich an omega-3 fatty acids (such as cold-water fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts).
Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and limiting foods with omega-6 fatty
acids (found, for example, in egg yolks, meats, and cooking oils including corn,
safflower, and cottonseed,) may reduce allergy symptoms in general. This is
because omega-3 fatty acids tend to decrease inflammation while omega-6 fatty
acids (other than GLA) tend to increase inflammation.
Studies suggest that L. acidophilus, "friendly" bacteria found in the
intestines, enhance the immune system. It is thought to have the potential to
lower the risk of allergies, including allergic rhinitis.
Cysteine is an essential amino acid found in many proteins. N-acetylecysteine
(NAC), a modified form of cysteine, may reduce nasal congestion. Theoretically,
therefore, taking an NAC supplement may help reduce symptoms of allergic
rhinitis. This theory needs scientific study before specific recommendations can
Quercetin is a flavonoid, a plant pigment responsible for the colors found in
fruits and vegetables. Quercetin inhibits the production and release of
histamine -- a substance that contributes to allergy symptoms of allergic
rhinitis, such as a runny nose and watery eyes. Quercetin seems to work better
when used in conjunction with bromelain, a digestive enzyme found in pineapples.
Test tube and animal studies suggest that spirulina, an immune system
stimulant, may help protect against harmful allergic reactions. It appears that
spirulina prevents the release of histamines, substances that contribute to
symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Research on people is needed.
Information on vitamin C for allergic rhinitis is somewhat limited, but early
studies suggest that there may be a role for this vitamin in treating symptoms
of hay fever and year-round allergic rhinitis.
Herbs, like other medications, may produce side effects or interact with
other medications. They should, therefore, be used with caution and only under
the guidance of a professionally trained and qualified herbalist.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Butterbur has been traditionally used to treat asthma and bronchitis and to
reduce mucus. A recent study of 125 people with hay fever found that an extract
of this herb was as effective and less sedating than cetirizine, a commonly
prescribed non-sedating antihistamine. The study lasted only 2 weeks, and while
it shows promise, it is not known what would be the effect of using butterbur
over a longer time period.
Several test tube and animal studies suggest that echinacea contains
substances that enhance the activity of the immune system and reduce
inflammation. For these reasons, professional herbalists may recommend echinacea
to treat allergic rhinitis. In rare cases, however, echinacea itself causes an
allergic reaction. See
Warnings and Precautions.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
This herb is considered by some to be a potential treatment for allergic
rhinitis because the main active ingredient in it is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA),
an essential fatty acid that may relieve allergy symptoms (see Nutrition and
Dietary Supplement section).
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Goldenseal is considered to be a natural antibiotic and antiseptic, and many
herbalists include it in herbal remedies for allergic rhinitis. Laboratory
studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has
antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties. Commercial preparations of
goldenseal have very little berberine, however. Therefore, it is unclear whether
it is berberine, another substance, or a combination of factors in goldenseal
that may be providing the benefit reported by herbal experts.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica/Urtica urens)
Stinging nettle has traditionally been used for treating a variety of
conditions, including allergic rhinitis. Studies thus far have been favorable,
but not overwhelmingly so. More research is needed, but you may want to talk to
your doctor about whether it is safe for you to try nettle as a possible
Herbs used traditionally for allergies, but with few or no studies testing
their use for this purpose include:
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
Goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Evidence suggests that acupuncture is a useful complementary or alternative
treatment option for people with allergic rhinitis. In one study that included
45 people with hay fever, acupuncture was as effective as antihistamine therapy
in improving symptoms and the beneficial effects appeared to last longer.
Treatment for allergic rhinitis may include needling and moxibustion (a
technique in which heat from the burning of an herb called mugwort [Artemesia
vulgaris] enhances the therapeutic effect of the acupuncture
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic
therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the
treatment of allergic rhinitis symptoms based on their knowledge and experience.
Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's
constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical,
emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of
these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each
Nux vomica (poison nut) -- for stuffiness with nasal discharge,
dry, ticklish, and scraping nasal sensations with watery nasal discharge and a
lot of sneezing; an appropriate person for this remedy is irritable and
Arsenicum album (trioxide of arsenic) -- for stuffiness with
copious, burning nasal discharge and violent sneezing; an appropriate candidate
for Arsenicum feels restless, anxious, and exhausted
Allium cepa (raw onion) -- for frequent sneezing, a lot of
irritating nasal discharge and tearing eyes; this person tends to feel thirsty
Euphrasia (eyebright) -- for bland nasal discharge, with
stinging, irritating tears; a suitable person for this remedy has worse nasal
symptoms when lying down
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Chinese skullcap (Scuterllaria baicalensis) has been studied for its
effectiveness in both animals and people. It has antioxidative,
anti-inflammatory, and antihistamine properties. This makes it potentially
useful for treating allergic rhinitis, particularly when used with other herbs,
including stinging nettle.
Biminne is a Chinese herbal formula used to treat allergic rhinitis. In a
recent Western study of 58 people with year-round allergic rhinitis, biminne was
found to effectively relieve at least some symptoms in most of the participants.
Participants took the formula five times a day for 12 weeks, and they still
showed the benefit of biminne even after one year. It is not known how biminne
works, or if it is safe to use for extended periods.
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), also called ma huang, has been used in
Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than 5,000 years. It is used to treat nose
and lung congestion. Synthetic ephedrine compounds, such as pseudoephedrine, are
widely used in over-the-counter cold remedies. However, ephedra and its
derivatives are potentially dangerous and addictive. Take only under the close
guidance and supervision of an appropriately trained
Extended use of nasal sprays can make your allergic rhinitis worse. Call your
healthcare provider if you develop severe symptoms, if previously successful
treatment has become ineffective, or if symptoms do not respond to
If you are pregnant or breast feeding, avoid the following:
Decongestants without discussing with your physician
High doses of vitamin C
Ephedra and ephedra alkaloids such as ephedrine
Butterbur (Petasites) extracts
Warnings and Precautions
In rare cases, echinacea may cause allergic reactions ranging from a mild
rash to anaphylaxis (a life threatening reaction accompanied by throat
tightening, shortness of breath, and, possibly, loss of consciousness). People
with asthma may be at an increased risk for developing these adverse
If you are allergic to ragweed, avoid other plants in the Asteraceae family
(including echinacea, feverfew, asters, chamomile, and chrysanthemums).
Ephedra (ma huang) and ephedra alkaloids are associated with many side
effects, some of which are very serious including irregular heart rhythm and
stroke. Take only with close medical supervision.
Goldenseal should not be used over a long period of time, and it should be
avoided completely if you have high blood pressure.
Skullcap has sedative properties, and should therefore be used with caution
or not at all with antihistamines that make you drowsy.
Prognosis and Complications
Chances are, your symptoms of allergic rhinitis will be readily treated, but
they will continue to appear with each exposure to an allergen.
Although perennial allergic rhinitis is not a serious condition, it
nonetheless can interfere with many important aspects of life. Depending on the
severity of your case, allergic rhinitis may be mildly disruptive to temporarily
debilitating, resulting in missed days from school or work. Medication may cause
drowsiness and other side effects. Your allergies could also trigger other
conditions such as eczema, asthma, sinusitis, and ear infection (called otitis
media). Seasonal allergic rhinitis may diminish as you age.
Desensitization may cause uncomfortable side effects (such as hives and rash)
and may have dangerous side effects such as anaphylaxis. It often requires years
of treatment and is effective in about two-thirds of cases.
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Review Date: December 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Constance Grauds, RPh, President,
Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists, San Rafael, CA; Gary Guebert, DC,
DACBR, Login Chiropractic College, Maryland Heights, MO; Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma and
Senior Medical Editor A.D.A.M., Inc.; Anne McClenon, ND, Compass Family Health
Center, Plymouth, MA; Marcellus Walker, MD, LAc, (Acupuncture section October
2001) St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center, New York, NY; Ira Zunin, MD, MPH,
MBA, (Acupuncture section October 2001) President and Chairman, Hawaii State
Consortium for Integrative Medicine, Honolulu,
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