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What is rhinitis?

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

Allergic rhinitis can occur when you breathe in something that you’re allergic to, known as an allergen. This condition affects 40 to 60 million Americans, reports the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. It can be seasonal, which means it affects you at certain times of year. Alternately, it can be perennial, which means it affects you throughout the year.

Nonallergic rhinitis isn’t triggered by a specific allergen. It can affect you for short or long periods of time.

What are the symptoms of rhinitis?

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

  • stuffy nose
  • runny nose
  • itchy nose
  • post-nasal drip
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • itchy eyes
  • watery eyes
  • headache
  • facial pain
  • slight loss of smell, taste, or hearing

What causes rhinitis?

Allergic rhinitis occurs when your immune system detects an allergen, or substance that triggers an allergic reaction. These substances are usually 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 releasing a chemical known as histamine. This 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 of year. It’s triggered by mold (fungus) spores in the air or pollen from specific plants, such as:

  • grasses
  • trees
  • flowers

Perennial allergic rhinitis can be triggered by a variety of allergens, including:

  • pet dander and saliva
  • cockroach droppings
  • mold
  • dust mites
  • smoke

Nonallergic rhinitis is more challenging to diagnose. It isn’t triggered by an allergen 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 NSAIDs and blood pressure-reducing medications
  • certain foods and odors
  • smoke and other air pollution
  • weather changes
  • hormonal changes
  • stress

Nonallergic rhinitis is sometimes caused by structural problems in your nasal cavity, such as a tumor or narrow passages.

Who is at risk of rhinitis?

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 rhinitis.

How is rhinitis diagnosed?

To diagnose allergic rhinitis, your doctor will perform a 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 learn if your rhinitis is allergic or nonallergic.

How is rhinitis treated?

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 triggers 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 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 non-allergic rhinitis, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications to treat it, such as nasal corticosteroids, nasal saline spray, nasal antihistamine spray, or decongestants. If a defect in your nasal cavity is responsible for your symptoms, your doctor may recommend corrective surgery.

What is the outlook for rhinitis?

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 longer periods of time, but it can be managed with treatment.

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

Content licensed from:

Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on: Oct 24, 2016: Stacy R. Sampson, DO

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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