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Allergic Rhinitis & Hay Fever

2010-12-23 16:42:54


It's easy to dismiss hay fever as a minor nuisance. But call it by its proper name, allergic rhinitis, and you'll be on the way to recognizing it as a legitimate medical problem. Add the fact that it affects about one of every five Americans and drains the economy of about $2 billion a year, and you'll see that it's an important problem indeed. Fortunately, it's also a problem that responds very well to treatment.

Allergic rhinitis can blunt the sense of smell, and it can also interfere with the other important functions of the nose. When your nasal passages are functioning normally, about five to eight quarts of air pass through them each minute. Your nose has the job of conditioning that air before it reaches the sensitive tissue of your lungs. Your nose adds moisture, but to do that, it must produce large amounts of mucus. It also warms the air, with help from a large network of blood vessels. Finally, the nose traps small particles, keeping them out of the lungs.

If you have allergies and your nose traps pollen or other particles to which you are sensitive, an inflammatory process starts right in your nose. Immune system mast cells in the nasal tissue release chemicals such as histamine and leukotrienes. Blood vessels swell, causing nasal congestion, and mucus production soars, creating a runny nose. Just like that, you've developed some of the symptoms of allergic rhinitis -- and some of your nose's normal functions have been compromised.

Nearly everyone with allergic rhinitis complains of a stuffy, runny nose. Sneezing is nearly as common, and a postnasal drip can trigger coughing. Typical symptoms extend beyond the nose to include an itchy or sore throat and itchy, burning, watery eyes that may look red due to allergic conjunctivitis.

Between 20 percent and 40 percent of patients with allergic rhinitis also have asthma. Other allergy-related disorders such as eczema may also be present. Some patients have nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum, or sinusitis.

Three strategies are available: avoiding triggers, using medications to reduce symptoms, and getting immunotherapy ("allergy shots").

--Steps to take for seasonal rhinitis:

Limit your outdoor activities when pollen counts are high. Ragweed counts usually peak in early midday, grass pollen in late afternoon and early evening. If you have to do yard work during pollen season, wear an N95 mask. Shower, wash your hair, and change your clothes afterwards.

Keep your windows and doors closed as much as possible during pollen season.

Use air conditioners instead of fans, which bring in outside air. Drive with your windows and vents closed and your air conditioner on.

--For year-round allergic rhinitis:

If you have a dog or cat that triggers symptoms, have it bathed weekly and do your best to keep it off furniture and out of the bedroom.

Put pillows, box springs, and mattresses in sealed plastic covers (allergen encasements) to keep out dust mites. Wash bedding in hot water to kill dust mites.

Remove carpets from your bedroom.


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