Research Article: Allergic rhinitis

Date Published: November 10, 2011

Publisher: BioMed Central

Author(s): Peter Small, Harold Kim.


Allergic rhinitis is a common disorder that is strongly linked to asthma and conjunctivitis. It is usually a long-standing condition that often goes undetected in the primary-care setting. The classic symptoms of the disorder are nasal congestion, nasal itch, rhinorrhea and sneezing. A thorough history, physical examination and allergen skin testing are important for establishing the diagnosis of allergic rhinitis. Second-generation oral antihistamines and intranasal corticosteroids are the mainstay of treatment. Allergen immunotherapy is an effective immune-modulating treatment that should be recommended if pharmacologic therapy for allergic rhinitis is not effective or is not tolerated. This article provides an overview of the pathophysiology, diagnosis, and appropriate management of this disorder.

Partial Text

Rhinitis is broadly defined as inflammation of the nasal mucosa. It is a common disorder that affects up to 40% of the population [1]. Allergic rhinitis is the most common type of chronic rhinitis, affecting 10 to 20% of the population, and evidence suggests that the prevalence of the disorder is increasing. Severe allergic rhinitis has been associated with significant impairments in quality of life, sleep and work performance [2].

In allergic rhinitis, numerous inflammatory cells, including mast cells, CD4-positive T cells, B cells, macrophages, and eosinophils, infiltrate the nasal lining upon exposure to an inciting allergen (most commonly airborne dust mite fecal particles, cockroach residues, animal dander, moulds, and pollens). The T cells infiltrating the nasal mucosa are predominantly T helper (Th)2 in nature and release cytokines (e.g., interleukin [IL]-3, IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13) that promote immunoglobulin E (IgE) production by plasma cells. IgE production, in turn, triggers the release of mediators, such as histamine and leukotrienes, that are responsible for arteriolar dilation, increased vascular permeability, itching, rhinorrhea (runny nose), mucous secretion, and smooth muscle contraction [1,2]. The mediators and cytokines released during the early phase of an immune response to an inciting allergen, trigger a further cellular inflammatory response over the next 4 to 8 hours (late-phase inflammatory response) which results in recurrent symptoms (usually nasal congestion) [1,4].

Rhinitis is classified into one of the following categories according to etiology: IgE-mediated (allergic), autonomic, infectious and idiopathic (unknown). Although the focus of this article is allergic rhinitis, a brief description of the other forms of rhinitis is provided in Table 1.

Allergic rhinitis is usually a long-standing condition that often goes undetected in the primary-care setting. Patients suffering from the disorder often fail to recognize the impact of the disorder on quality of life and functioning and, therefore, do not frequently seek medical attention. In addition, physicians fail to regularly question patients about the disorder during routine visits [1,6]. Therefore, screening for rhinitis is recommended, particularly in asthmatic patients since studies have shown that rhinitis is present in up to 95% of patients with asthma [7-10].

The treatment goal for allergic rhinitis is relief of symptoms. Therapeutic options available to achieve this goal include avoidance measures, oral antihistamines, intranasal corticosteroids, leukotriene receptor antagonists, and allergen immunotherapy (see Figure 2). Other therapies that may be useful in select patients include decongestants and oral corticosteroids. If the patient’s symptoms persist despite appropriate treatment, referral to an allergist should be considered. As mentioned earlier, allergic rhinitis and asthma appear to represent a combined airway inflammatory disease and, therefore, treatment of asthma is also an important consideration in patients with allergic rhinitis.

Allergic rhinitis is a common disorder that can significantly impact patient quality of life. The diagnosis is made through a comprehensive history and physical examination. Further diagnostic testing using skin-prick tests or allergen-specific IgE tests is usually required to confirm that underlying allergies cause the rhinitis. The therapeutic options available for the treatment of allergic rhinitis are effective in managing symptoms and are generally safe and well-tolerated. Second-generation oral antihistamines and intranasal corticosteroids are the mainstay of treatment for the disorder. Allergen immunotherapy as well as other medications such as decongestants and oral corticosteroids may be useful in select cases.

• Allergic rhinitis is linked strongly with asthma and conjunctivitis.

Dr. Peter Small has received consulting fees or honoraria from GlaxoSmithKline, Graceway Pharmaceuticals, King Pharma, Merck Frosst, Novartis, and Nycomed.