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What is rhinitis?

What is rhinitis?
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It’s a safe bet that everyone you know has had rhinitis. Why? Because it’s simply a word for having a blocked or runny nose.

In medical language, “-itis” means inflammation, and “rhino” refers to the nose. Therefore, rhinitis is an inflammation of the nose – or, more specifically, an inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose. Common causes of rhinitis include mild viral infections like the cold, and allergies like hay fever.

Symptoms of rhinitis

If you’ve got rhinitis you’ll probably experience some of the following:

  • Blocked nose
  • Runny nose
  • Itching in the nose
  • Sneezing

You might also lose your sense of smell, and develop a crust around the inside of your nostrils.

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is sometimes used as an alternative name for hay fever, but actually it’s a label for any allergic reaction that causes symptoms in the nose like sneezing, itching, and stuffiness. It’s thought that about one in five people in the UK are affected by this condition.

If you have allergic rhinitis, it means that your immune system has developed an allergic response to a substance like pollen or dust. The substance itself isn’t harmful, but your immune system responds as though it is, releasing chemicals to fight it off. One of these chemicals, histamine, inflames the mucous membrane inside the nose, causing it to swell and produce mucus.

Causes of allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is commonly caused by these allergens:

  • House dust mites – tiny insects that are found around the home, commonly in soft furnishings
  • Pollen from trees and grasses – this allergic reaction is known as “hay fever”
  • Mould and fungi spores
  • Animals like cats and dogs – the reaction is not to the animal’s fur but to their dead skin, urine and saliva
  • Workplace materials – you might develop an allergy to a substance you use at work, like flour dust, latex or wood dust

Treating allergic rhinitis

If you have allergic rhinitis but your symptoms are mild, you should be able to manage the condition yourself.

When you experience symptoms, you can take over-the-counter antihistamines in the form of nasal sprays and tablets. You can also clean out your nose with a salt water solution.

Treatments aside, the best thing you can do is avoid your exposure to allergens:

  • If you have hay fever, get in the habit of checking the pollen count before you leave the house. On days when the pollen count is high, stay in and keep windows closed. When you go out, wear wraparound sunglasses and put petroleum jelly around your nostrils to prevent pollen entering your nose.
  • If you have an allergy to dust mites, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, put allergy-proof covers on your bedding, and clean dust from surfaces with a damp rather than a dry cloth. Try to avoid having carpets in your home, and keep soft furnishings as clean as possible.
  • If you’re allergic to animals, it’s best not to have pets in your home. If you live with a pet, keep them contained to one area and don’t let them in your bedroom. Wash them once a fortnight and always brush them outdoors.
  • If you think something in your workplace is causing a reaction, speak to your manager about getting help from an occupational health specialist.

My allergic rhinitis is severe what should I do?

For severe allergic rhinitis it’s a good idea to speak to your GP. If you have frequent symptoms, a blockage in your nose, or nasal polyps, your GP might prescribe corticosteroids in the form of a nasal spray or drops, as well as some additional treatments like antihistamines and decongestants.

In a really severe case, you may be referred for immunotherapy. This is where small amounts of the allergen are given as an injection or a tablet, normally once a week. This can help reduce your immune system’s sensitivity to it. This type of treatment is only suitable for certain allergens (e.g. pollen) and has to be done by a specialist as it carries a risk of serious allergic reaction.

Non-allergic rhinitis

Non-allergic rhinitis is a blocked, stuffy, itchy or runny nose that isn’t caused by an allergic reaction. It’s often caused by the common cold, which means it typically doesn’t last for longer than a couple of weeks.

Causes of non-allergic rhinitis

Usually, this type of rhinitis occurs when the blood vessels in the nose swell and fluid builds up in the nasal tissue. This can happen as a result of the following:

  • A viral infection e.g. the common cold
  • Environmental conditions e.g. extreme temperatures, smoke, paint fumes
  • A hormonal imbalance e.g. during pregnancy, while taking contraception
  • Medication e.g. beta-blockers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Overuse of nasal decongestants
  • Damage to the nasal tissue

Treating non-allergic rhinitis

You may be able to manage your symptoms simply by avoiding your triggers, wherever possible. For example, if you have a stuffy nose from taking medication, you can talk to your GP about switching to a different type.

You can also ease symptoms by rinsing out your nose with a salt solution, and by using over-the-counter nasal sprays. For advice about which nasal sprays will be suitable, speak to your pharmacist.