Do your symptoms get worse in the early spring or late summer or fall? Do you feel like you have frequent colds that just won't go away?
Your "cold" may not be a cold at all. It may be nasal allergies, also called hay fever, chronic nasal allergy, or allergic rhinitis. These are allergies that affect your nose, eyes, ears and throat.
If you have nasal allergies you're more sensitive than others to certain substances. These substances are usually considered harmless, such as pollen or mold. They cause an exaggerated reaction in your nose, eyes, and sinuses, triggering symptoms such as stuffiness, itching, runny nose, and watery eyes.
The substance that causes the immune system to overreact is called an allergen. It takes more than just one exposure to an allergen to trigger nasal allergies. People with nasal allergies become sensitized, or allergic, to a substance only after repeated exposure. This can take weeks, months, or even years. Once you're sensitized, though, allergy symptoms develop every time you're exposed to that allergen. That's because your body mistakes a harmless substance for a harmful invader and wages battle against it.
If you have nasal allergies, you're sensitive to allergens that are specific to you. So what bothers you and causes your stuffy or runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms may not bother someone else, even someone with nasal allergies. For instance, you may be sensitive to tree pollen. Someone else with nasal allergies may be sensitive to pet dander or dust mites.
See the next page to learn more about the different types of nasal allergies.
Types of Nasal Allergies
There are two main types of nasal allergies: seasonal, which occur only at certain times during the year, and perennial, which occur year-round. Both cause the same symptoms. The primary difference is when and how often the symptoms occur.
- Seasonal allergies are commonly called hay fever. They occur at specific times during the year and result in more than 10 million doctor visits annually in the U.S. Grass or weed pollens, which are seasonal in nature, are the most common triggers.
- With perennial nasal allergies, symptoms don't change with the seasons. That's because the substances you're allergic to exist all year. They include cockroaches, pet dander, and mold spores. Or, you may be allergic to tiny parasites called dust mites that live in your house. As anyone who has cleaned house knows, dust has no season. The good news is that limiting your exposure to these triggers can usually control perennial nasal allergies.
Even though nasal allergy symptoms can be quite bothersome, many people who have them think they're normal. They don't recognize the symptoms because:
- symptoms tend to develop slowly over time
- symptoms are present most of the time or chronic, so they seem to be normal
- other people in the family have the same symptoms
To learn about the causes of these symptoms, see the next page.
Nasal Allergies Causes
Nasal allergies are an exaggerated response of the immune system to usually harmless substances.
- You may inherit a tendency for allergic responses.
- It may take many exposures over a long period of time to develop an allergic response to a particular substance.
- Factors that may contribute to nasal allergies include: exposure to cigarette smoke, being a low-birth-weight baby, being a bottle-fed baby, being born during high-pollen seasons.
No one knows why some people are allergic to substances such as pollens or dust mites and others aren't. Many experts believe that people inherit sensitivity to 1 or more allergens, and most assume there are differences in people's immune systems that make them ultrasensitive. What is known is that anyone can develop nasal allergies at any age.
What role does the immune system play?
Every day, your body is exposed to millions of bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful microscopic invaders. Your body's immune system normally defends you from illness. It works hard to kill these invaders before they can harm you. Occasionally, a virus or other germ gets by your immune system, and you get sick. But unless something is seriously wrong with your immune system, your body usually wards off these attacks.
Sometimes, though, your body's defense system goes haywire. When you have nasal allergies and an allergen gets into your body, your immune system believes it is under attack, so it launches a defense. Your body releases powerful chemicals called histamine from cells in your body called mast cells and basophils. Histamine is what makes your nose run and your eyes water. It makes you sneeze and wheeze. It may even cause problems breathing.
When your body responds this way, it is responding to a false alarm. Unfortunately, you pay the price with miserable allergy symptoms.
Next, learn how nasal allergies are diagnosed and treated.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Doctors diagnose nasal allergies by:
- what you tell them about your symptoms
- what you tell them about your medical history
- a physical exam that may include tests to identify the substances to which you are allergic
There are 3 main approaches to treating nasal allergies:
- avoidance, where you try to stay away from the substances that trigger your symptoms
- medications, which you take to either treat or prevent symptoms
- immunotherapy, where you receive injections that can help you become less sensitive to the substances causing allergic reactions
Nasal allergies aren't something you should ignore. Left untreated, they can lead to sinus, throat, ear, and stomach problems. Some of the more serious complications include:
- sinus infections
- nasal polyps
- ear infections
- asthma flare-ups
- emotional and social problems
For more information about allergies and allergy treatments, see the links on the next page.