A Guide to Rhinitis: Types, Treatments, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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“Rhinitis” is an umbrella term that covers several conditions that all have some factors in common, including nasal symptoms such as congestion and runny nose. Their causes and treatments can vary.  This article explains rhinitis types, symptoms, causes, and treatment.

What is rhinitis?

Person blowing their nose
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“Rhinitis” is a general term for conditions that cause nasal symptoms. Several subtypes of rhinitis exist.

Some types of rhinitis have a more clear-cut explanation than others. But all types of rhinitis occur due to inflammation or dysfunction of the nasal mucosa. The nasal mucosa is a mucous membrane that lines the nasal cavity.

The nasal mucosa secretes mucus that coats the nasal cavity and protects its lining. It also humidifies air as it travels through the nasal cavity and traps debris and particles to help clean the air.

Various triggers can irritate the nasal mucosa, causing symptoms of rhinitis.

Rhinitis is one of the most common medical conditions. It has a significant effect on quality of life and healthcare costs. Missed work and school days represent indirect costs of rhinitis. Direct costs include doctor’s office visits and medications to treat the condition.

What are the types of rhinitis?

Experts classify rhinitis in several ways. It is common to break the condition into three major types. Each of these types has subtypes.

Keep in mind that the various types might have overlapping symptoms or presentations.

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is an atopic disease. This means it involves an enhanced immune response to allergens.

It is one of the diseases on the atopic march, which is a progression of atopic disorders. Other atopic conditions include eczema, food allergies, and allergic asthma

Other names for allergic rhinitis include hay fever and seasonal allergies.

Experts consider allergic rhinitis seasonal when it is a reaction to plant pollens that change with the season. Some people have allergic rhinitis all year long, though. This form of allergic rhinitis can occur when allergens include things like dust or animal dander.

Infectious rhinitis

Infectious rhinitis is usually due to a viral infection. It is the most common form of upper respiratory infection.

Several different viruses can cause infectious rhinitis, including:

  • adenoviruses
  • coronaviruses
  • enteroviruses
  • influenza viruses 
  • parainfluenza viruses
  • respiratory syncytial virus
  • rhinoviruses

Nonallergic rhinitis

Nonallergic rhinitis is chronic rhinitis that does not involve the immune system. It has several subtypes, including:

  • Atrophic rhinitis or senile rhinitis: a result of degeneration, hardening, or thickening of the mucosa that tends to develop with age
  • Gustatory rhinitis: a reaction to eating spicy foods
  • Hormone-induced rhinitis: including pregnancy rhinitis, menstrual rhinitis, and neonatal rhinitis
  • Idiopathic rhinitis or vasomotor rhinitis: the most common type of nonallergic rhinitis, which may involve increased nasal responsiveness to nerve stimulation
  • Occupational rhinitis: work-related rhinitis from exposure to irritants or other agents
  • Vasomotor rhinitis: due to a person going outside in the cold

Drug-induced rhinitis

Drug-induced rhinitis is a subtype of nonallergic rhinitis and may involve the following medications:

  • angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • antipsychotics
  • aspirin
  • beta agonists
  • beta blockers
  • calcium channel blockers
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • topical nasal decongestants, when used too often
  • phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors

What are the symptoms of rhinitis?

Regardless of the type, rhinitis symptoms generally include the following:

  • decreased or absent sense of smell
  • itchiness
  • nasal congestion or obstruction
  • runny nose, which can be watery or purulent, meaning that it contains pus
  • sneezing

What causes rhinitis?

Rhinitis is inflammation of the lining of the nasal cavity. The causes of the inflammation vary with the type.

Several factors can trigger rhinitis, including:

  • allergens
  • changes in the nasal mucosa
  • hormonal changes
  • irritants
  • medications
  • microorganisms

When the cause of rhinitis is not entirely clear, healthcare professionals may refer to it as idiopathic rhinitis.

How do doctors diagnose rhinitis?

Rhinitis is mainly a clinical diagnosis. This means doctors rely on your medical history and an exam to make the diagnosis. Testing is usually not necessary. 

For allergic rhinitis, doctors may order skin testing or blood tests to check for specific antibodies. This can help identify the antigens triggering the rhinitis.

How do you treat rhinitis?

Treatment of rhinitis depends on the type and may include: 

  • air humidification
  • antihistamines (oral or nasal forms) and other allergy blockers, such as leukotriene inhibitors
  • anticholinergic topicals
  • desensitization immunotherapy
  • nasal corticosteroids
  • oral decongestants
  • saline irrigation

It is also important to avoid rhinitis triggers if possible.

How do you prevent rhinitis?

It is not possible to prevent all forms of rhinitis. For people who have triggers, avoiding the trigger is the main method of prevention.

This may include:

  • avoiding foods, irritants, odors, or fumes that cause rhinitis
  • limiting pet access to the house or bedrooms
  • not smoking and limiting exposure to secondhand smoke
  • removing items that collect dust, such as rugs, draperies, and knickknacks 
  • using a dehumidifier and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters
  • regularly vacuuming and cleaning to remove dust
  • washing bedding often

If you are experiencing rhinitis, talk with your doctor about ways to prevent it.

Allergic rhinitis, in particular, often occurs with related conditions.

These conditions include:

What are the potential complications of rhinitis?

Rhinitis, including allergic rhinitis, can become chronic and involve sinusitis. Chronic rhinitis occurs when the condition lasts for more than 3 months.

Long-term inflammation of the nasal mucosa can lead to polyps. Polyps are small bumps or lumps of extra tissue. They are typically benign, or noncancerous, but may sometimes develop into cancer.

Summary

“Rhinitis” is a general term that refers to inflammation of the nasal mucosa. Several different types of rhinitis exist, each with different causes. They all cause similar symptoms, though, such as nasal congestion and runny nose.

Doctors take a careful medical history to determine which type of rhinitis you may have. Treatment can vary somewhat depending on the type.

Antihistamines, oral decongestants, and nasal irrigation may be treatment options. Avoiding triggers is also an important part of managing this condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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