Hay Fever (Allergic Rhinitis)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

View 10 Common Allergy Triggers Slideshow Pictures

Quick GuideAllergy Pictures Slideshow: 10 Common Allergy Triggers

Allergy Pictures Slideshow: 10 Common Allergy Triggers

Why does an allergic reaction occur?

An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system attacks a usually harmless substance called an allergen that gains access to the body. The immune system calls upon a protective substance called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight these invading allergic substances or allergens. Even though everyone has some IgE, an allergic person has an unusually large amount of IgE. This army of IgE antibodies attacks and engages the invading army of allergic substances of allergens.

Specialized cells called mast cells also participate in the allergic reaction. Mast cells release a variety of chemicals into the tissues and blood, one of which is known as histamine. These chemicals frequently cause allergic reactions. These chemicals are very irritating and cause itching, swelling, and fluid leaking from cells. Through various mechanisms, these allergic chemicals can cause muscle spasm and can lead to lung and throat tightening as is found in asthma and loss of voice.

What causes allergic rhinitis?

Any substance can cause an allergy if exposed to an allergic person in the right way. But for all practical purposes and with few exceptions, allergic rhinitis is caused by proteins. Commonly, allergic rhinitis is a result of an allergic person coming in contact several times with protein from plants. Many trees, grasses, and weeds produce extremely small, light, dry protein particles called pollen. This pollen is spread by the wind and is inhaled. These pollen particles are usually the male sex cells of the plant and are smaller than the tip of a pin or less than 40 microns in diameter.

Even though pollen is usually invisible in the air, pollen is a potent stimulator of allergy. Pollen lodges in the nasal lining tissues (mucus membranes) and other parts of the respiratory tract, where it initiates the allergic response. Up to 7.8% of American adults suffer from allergic rhinitis. Approximately one in four people with allergic rhinitis also has asthma.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/18/2015
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