Over the last couple of decades, there appears to have been an increase in the prevalence of allergic rhinitis. This increase is partially attributable to the limited ventilation in most modern housing. Some have also suggested that pollution may have a role in this. Recent studies however suggest that this is probably not the case. In one study comparing the rates of allergic rhinitis in two German cites, no significant difference was found despite the significantly higher levels of pollution in the eastern city.
Causes of Allergic Rhinitis
The triggers responsible for allergic rhinitis may be classified as either seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergens are for the most part found outdoors. Common seasonal allergens include trees, grass and weed pollens and airborne molds. As one would suspect, these allergens depend very much on the geographic area. Perennial allergens tend to be found indoors and include among others things, dust mites and animal dander (especially from cats).
Signs and Symptoms of Allergic Rhinitis
People suffering from allergic rhinitis usually complain of itchy eyes, nose and palate, watery rhinorrhea, nasal obstruction, sneezing attacks that are often violent and prolonged, conjunctival irritation and lacrimation. They often have edematous nasal mucosa which is classically pale or violet in color and excessive clear mucus within the nose which often contains large numbers of Eosinophils. Children may have nasal skin crease as a result of chronically trying to open their nasal airway the “Allergic Salute”.
Investigations of Allergic Rhinitis
The most important part of the physician’s workup is taking a thorough history. A temporal relationship between allergen exposure and symptoms is almost diagnostic. The person who suffers all week but is fine on the weekend is very likely allergic to something at work. Skin testing is valuable to help pinpoint possible allergens but is never absolutely definitive. It should not be used to do screening without a clinical suspicion because of its high rate of false positives. In vitro tests for allergen–specific IgE are indicated for those patients with contact dermatitis or a questionable false skin test. A high serum IgE level can also provide some information but, in general, it is not sought because it is very non–specific.
The first step in managing a patient with allergic rhinitis is to educate them about the importance of avoiding allergen contact. Even the best medical therapies and sprays are ineffective in the face of a high allergen load.
- Antihistamines are very effective in acute episodes. Generally, the non–sedative antihistamines are preferred to sedative ones. However, if for financial reasons the non–sedative antihistamines are not an option the patient should be instructed to take their antihistamines before bed.
- Topical vasoconstrictors may be added to the antihistamines for temporary relief but their use should be limited to less than 5 days to minimize the risk of developing rebound nasal congestion.
- For patients with moderate disease, sodium cromoglycate may be taken prophylactically. However, this might not be popular with patients because it requires them to take medications four times a day.
- When antihistamines and decongestants are insufficient or patients require daily medications, topical steroids should be considered. In general, they are very effective. Patients starting topical steroids should be taught that it takes three or four days before they will see any beneficial effects.
- For severe cases, desensitization therapy has also been shown to be effective.
- Surgery has a role for patients who have either septal deviations or large turbinates and chronic rhinitis.