Allergic rhinitis, more commonly referred to as hay fever, is an inflammation of the nasal passages caused by allergic reaction to airborne substances.
Allergic rhinitis (AR) is the most common allergic condition and one of the most common of all minor afflictions. It affects between 10-20% of all people in the United States, and is responsible for 2.5% of all doctor visits. Antihistamines and other drugs used to treat allergic rhinitis make up a significant fraction of both prescription and over-the-counter drug sales each year.
There are two types of allergic rhinitis: seasonal and perennial. Seasonal AR occurs in the spring, summer, and early fall, when airborne plant pollens are at their highest levels. In fact, the term hay fever is really a misnomer, since allergy to grass pollen is only one cause of symptoms for most people. Perennial AR occurs all year and is usually caused by home or workplace airborne pollutants. A person can be affected by one or both types. Symptoms of seasonal AR are worst after being outdoors, while symptoms of perennial AR are worst after spending time indoors.
Both types of allergies can develop at any age, although onset in childhood through early adulthood is most common. Although allergy to a particular substance is not inherited, increased allergic sensitivity may "run in the family." While allergies can improve on their own over time, they can also become worse over time.
Allergic rhinitis is a type of immune reaction. Normally, the immune system responds to foreign microorganisms, or particles, like pollen or dust, by producing specific proteins, called antibodies, that are capable of binding to identifying molecules, or antigens, on the foreign particle. This reaction between antibody and antigen sets off a series of reactions designed to protect the body from infection. Sometimes, this same series of reactions is triggered by harmless, everyday substances. This is the condition known as allergy, and the offending substance is called an allergen.
Like all allergic reactions, AR involves a special set of cells in the immune system known as mast cells. Mast cells, found in the lining of the nasal passages and eyelids, display a special type of antibody, called immunoglobulin type E (IgE), on their surface. Inside, mast cells store reactive chemicals in small packets, called granules. When the antibodies encounter allergens, they trigger release of the granules, which spill out their chemicals onto neighboring cells, including blood vessels and nerve cells. One of these chemicals, histamine, binds to the surfaces of these other cells, through special proteins called histamine receptors. Interaction of histamine with receptors on blood vessels causes neighboring cells to become leaky, leading to the fluid collection, swelling, and increased redness characteristic of a runny nose and red, irritated eyes. Histamine also stimulates pain receptors, causing the itchy, scratchy nose, eyes, and throat common in allergic rhinitis.
The number of possible airborne allergens is enormous. Seasonal AR is most commonly caused by grass and tree pollens, since their pollen is produced in large amounts and is dispersed by the wind. Showy flowers, like roses or lilacs, that attract insects produce a sticky pollen which is less likely to become airborne. Different plants release their pollen at different times of the year, so seasonal AR sufferers may be most affected in spring, summer, or fall, depending on which plants provoke a response. The amount of pollen in the air is reflected in the pollen count, often broadcast on the daily news during allergy season. Pollen counts tend to be lower after a good rain that washes the pollen out of the air and higher on warm, dry, windy days.
Virtually any type of tree or grass may cause AR. A few types of weeds that tend to cause the most trouble for people include the following:
Perennial AR is often triggered by house dust, a complicated mixture of airborne particles, many of which are potent allergens. House dust contains some or all of the following:
House mite body parts. All houses contain large numbers of microscopic insects called house mites. These harmless insects feed on fibers, fur, and skin shed by the house's larger occupants. Their tiny body parts easily become airborne.
Animal dander. Animals constantly shed fur, skin flakes, and dried saliva. Carried in the air, or transferred from pet to owner by direct contact, dander can cause allergy in many sensitive people.
Mold spores. Molds live in damp spots throughout the house, including basements, bathrooms, air ducts, air conditioners, refrigerator drains, damp windowsills, mattresses, and stuffed furniture. Mildew and other molds release airborne spores which circulate throughout the house.
Other potential causes of perennial allergic rhinitis include the following: