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Rhinitis and Hay Fever

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What Is Rhinitis?

Rhinitis can be an extremely uncomfortable condition. With symptoms like postnasal drip, sneezing and a stuffy or runny nose, this medical condition can make you less productive at work, have you seeing the doctor more often and leave you suffering from drowsiness and other side effects of treatments.

Rhinitis can manifest in one of two forms: allergic and nonallergic. Some 58 million Americans suffer from allergic rhinitis, while about 19 million deal with the nonallergic type (vasomotor rhinitis is the medical term for nonallergic rhinitis).

Seasonal allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, typically is caused by pollen or indoor allergens and pollutants in the air. When you have allergic rhinitis, your immune system responds to the allergen by releasing chemical mediators and histamine, which can cause symptoms in your throat, eyes, ears, mouth and skin. Hay fever tends to flare up in the spring and fall, when pollen is typically worst.

About a third of people with rhinitis don’t have allergies. This nonallergic form of rhinitis typically develops in adults, and the symptoms — especially nasal congestion and a runny nose — can last throughout the year. The immune system is not involved in nonallergic rhinitis.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Rhinitis? 

Rhinitis can cause symptoms including:

  • Sneezing.
  • Itching of the eyes, throat, nose and roof of the mouth.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Dark circles under eyes.
  • Running nose.
  • Tears in the eyes.
  • Chronic ear infections.

People with allergic rhinitis also are at risk of developing eye allergies, and the condition can worsen the symptoms of asthma.

Rhinitis vs. The Common Cold

How can you ascertain whether your symptoms are caused by hay fever (rhinitis) or just the good, old-fashioned common cold? Well, for one, we recommend you visit your doctor or allergist for a diagnosis – more on this later. It also helps to understand more about the common cold, including what it is and its causes and symptoms.

The common cold mainly affects your upper respiratory tract, specifically the throat and nose. Lots of people get colds each year; the Mayo Clinic states that adults will experience at least two colds a year, sometimes three or more.

This infection has a virus to blame for the manifestation of symptoms. Those symptoms, which we’ll share in the next section, will typically disrupt your life for a week. Sometimes, they persist for ten days. If you have a history of smoking, it’s possible for your symptoms to stick around past the ten-day mark.  

What Are the Symptoms of the Common Cold? 

Given the very common nature of colds, most of the symptoms aren’t too serious. That said, some people have more intense symptoms than others. Two people with the common cold might not have identical symptoms either.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Malaise or a sense of unwellness
  • Fever (often not a high one)
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches with body aches
  • Congestion and coughing
  • Achy throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose

In certain instances, children may develop symptoms like no appetite, drowsiness, pain in the ears, wheezing, coughing and a fever. Adults may report sinus pain with their headache, a very sore throat, wheezing and other breathing troubles and a fever that exceeds 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit that goes on for at least five days. In both cases, immediate treatment from a medical professional is recommended.

How are these Conditions Diagnosed?


Since allergic and nonallergic rhinitis can have many of the same symptoms, skin or blood tests may be necessary to determine which form you have. By studying your comprehensive health history and performing allergy testing, your doctor will determine if your symptoms are due to specific triggering allergens.

It is not always possible to determine the causes of nonallergic rhinitis, and in some cases, it’s confirmed only when allergic rhinitis, infections and other conditions are ruled out. Car exhaust, perfumes, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, chlorine, hair spray, latex and other environmental irritants can trigger the symptoms of nonallergic rhinitis. These triggers also cause asthma in many cases.

Some medications — including oral contraceptives, over-the-counter painkillers, antidepressants and others — also can serve as triggers for nonallergic rhinitis, as can alcohol and hot or spicy foods. Additional triggers can include illegal drugs like cocaine, changes in the weather and hormonal fluctuations.

Common Cold

When symptoms of the common cold present themselves in an adult or child, the patient should see their primary care physician for an official diagnosis. The doctor will analyze the patient’s symptoms and run tests, if necessary, to rule out other diseases. 

How are these Conditions Treated?


Controlling allergic rhinitis symptoms involves avoiding triggers, including the reduction of dust mites, mold and other indoor allergens. For pollen and other outdoor allergies, avoidance may mean limiting time spent outside during certain times of year.

Allergy shots, known as immunotherapy, may help with symptom management in some cases. Another recently approved type of allergy immunotherapy is sublingual immunotherapy allergy tablets, which are given instead of shots.

Certain medications also can help reduce the symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Effective medicines may include antihistamine pills or nasal sprays, decongestant tablets, or nasal corticosteroid sprays. Most hay fever medications work most effectively if you start them before there’s pollen in the air — and before you start showing symptoms.

For the nonallergic form of rhinitis, possible treatments include nasal antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids and nasal saline. Individuals suffering from nonallergic rhinitis also should try to avoid environmental triggers, including cigarette smoke, wood-burning fireplaces, household cleaning products and scented products.

Common Cold

As a mild viral infection, the common cold is caused by a virus – not a person’s environment. While there is no cure for the condition, there are numerous ways a person with the common cold can help relieve their symptoms. In general, you’ll want to fight the disease with medication, fluids and plenty of rest. If symptoms are mild, there is over-the-counter (OTC) medication that can help with you condition.  If you notice you or your child’s fever starts to spike over 100 degrees or the condition remains for more than ten days, consult your PCP for additional treatment options. 

How Is Hay Fever Different Than the Common Cold? 

By this point, we’ve talked about rhinitis and the common cold in depth. When you look at them both, they have similar symptoms. For instance, you might have nasal congestion and bodily discomfort with hay fever and the common cold.

To make matters even more confusing, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology or ACAAI says that even if you have seasonal allergies, you can have symptoms almost any time of the year.

Let’s say your allergies really flare up in the springtime once the trees begin blooming and pollen counts increase. You might eagerly look forward to summer, not only for the better weather, but because your allergy symptoms should abate then. However, they don’t. If not, you’re far from alone. The ACAAI notes that many seasonal allergy sufferers experience symptoms well into the summertime. That’s because mold spores and grass spores are more prevalent that time of year, even though pollen counts lessen.

If you’re stumped on whether you have hay fever or the common cold, the ACAAI has come up with a handy checklist for differentiating between the two conditions. By answering the questions on this checklist, you should have a clearer idea of what’s causing your symptoms.

  • Do your symptoms include wheezing or itching? The common cold typically does not cause itchiness, even though it’s uncomfortable in other ways (headaches, body pain). Itching could be indicative of asthma and/or allergies.
  • What color is your mucus? It’s kind of gross to look at, sure, but for the sake of your health, you’ve got to. If your mucus looks clear, it’s maybe allergies, but it could be the common cold, too. While green or yellow mucus tends to point towards the common cold, don’t rule out allergies, either.
  • How bad are your symptoms? If they’ve worsened over the past few days, then it’s probably a case of the common cold. You often feel a sore throat or stuffy with a cold at first, then you come down with a fever and body aches. Allergy symptoms don’t progress in the same way.
  • How long have the symptoms gone on for? Allergies, as we said, can affect you seasonally or all year. The common cold will almost always disappear in a few weeks.

Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center

Since 1952, Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center has had the pleasure of serving residents in the Charlotte area. Our physicians, certified by the American Board of Allergy & Immunology, can help you get some relief from your allergy symptoms by determining the cause and creating an appropriate treatment plan. Please contact us today to schedule your appointment.

Contact Us

To schedule or request an appointment with one of our physicians, please call 704-372-7900