Allergic rhinitis is inflammation of the inside of the nose caused by an allergen, such as pollen, dust, mould or flakes of skin from certain animals.
It's a very common condition, estimated to affect around one in every five people in the UK.
Signs and symptoms
Allergic rhinitis typically causes cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing, itchiness and a blocked or runny nose. These symptoms usually start soon after being exposed to an allergen.
Some people only get allergic rhinitis for a few months at a time because they are sensitive to seasonal allergens, such as tree or grass pollen. Other people get allergic rhinitis all year round.
Most people with allergic rhinitis have mild symptoms that can be easily and effectively treated. However, for some, symptoms can be severe and persistent, causing sleep problems and interfering with everyday life.
The symptoms of allergic rhinitis do occasionally improve with time, but this can take many years and it is unlikely that the condition will ever disappear completely.
When to see your GP
You should visit your GP if the symptoms of allergic rhinitis are disrupting your sleep, impairing your ability to carry out everyday activities or adversely affecting your performance at work or school.
Your GP will usually be able to diagnose allergic rhinitis based on your symptoms and any possible triggers you may have noticed. If the exact cause of your allergic rhinitis is uncertain, you may be referred for allergy testing.
Read more about diagnosing allergic rhinitis.
What causes allergic rhinitis?
Allergic rhinitis is caused by the immune system reacting to an allergen as if it were harmful.
This results in cells releasing a number of chemicals that cause the mucus membrane (the inside layer of your nose) to become swollen and excessive levels of mucus to be produced.
Common allergens that cause allergic rhinitis include pollen (this type of allergic rhinitis is known as hay fever), mould spores, house dust mites and flakes of skin or droplets of urine or saliva from certain animals.
Read more about the causes of allergic rhinitis.
Treating and preventing allergic rhinitis
Although it is difficult to completely avoid potential allergens, taking steps to reduce your exposure to a particular allergen that you know or suspect is triggering your allergic rhinitis can help improve your symptoms.
If your condition is mild, you can also help reduce the symptoms yourself by taking over-the-counter medications – such as non-sedating antihistamines or decongestants – and by regularly rinsing your nasal passages with salt water solution to keep your nose free of irritants.
See your GP for advice if you have tried these self-help measures and they haven't helped. Your GP may choose to prescribe a stronger medication, such as a nasal spray containing corticosteroids.
Read more about treating allergic rhinitis and preventing allergic rhinitis.
In some cases, allergic rhinitis can lead to complications. These include:
- nasal polyps – abnormal but benign (non-cancerous) sacs of fluid that grow inside the nasal passages and sinuses
- sinusitis – an infection caused by nasal inflammation and swelling that prevents mucus draining from the sinuses
- middle ear infections – infection of part of the ear located directly behind the eardrum
These problems can often be treated with medication, although surgery is sometimes needed in severe or long-term cases.
Read more about the complications of allergic rhinitis.
Not all cases of rhinitis are caused by an allergic reaction. Some cases are the result of:
- an infection, such as the common cold
- oversensitive blood vessels in the nose
- overuse of nasal decongestants
This type of rhinitis is known as non-allergic rhinitis.
Page last reviewed: 19/03/2014
Next review due: 19/03/2016