Understanding Nasal Allergies

Understanding Nasal Allergies

Nasal allergies (also called allergic rhinitis) are a common health problem. They may be seasonal. This means they cause symptoms only at certain times of the year. Or they may be perennial. This means they cause symptoms all year long. Other health problems, such as asthma, often occur along with allergies as well.

Cross section side view of head showing allergens entering nose, swollen nasal lining, and fluid dripping from nasal lining.

What is an allergen?

An allergy is a reaction to a substance called an allergen. Common allergens include:

  • Wind-borne pollen (from grass, trees, ragweed)

  • Mold

  • Dust mites

  • Furry and feathered animals

  • Pests, such as cockroaches or rodents in a home or other building

Normally allergens are harmless. But when a person has allergies, the body thinks these allergens are harmful. The body then attacks allergens with antibodies. Allergy antibodies are attached to special cells called mast cells. Allergens stick to the antibodies. This makes the mast cells release histamine and other chemicals. This is an allergic reaction. The chemicals irritate nearby nasal tissue. This causes nasal allergy symptoms. When this happens in the breathing tubes of the lungs, it can cause asthma symptoms, such as cough and wheeze.

Common nasal allergy symptoms

Allergies can cause nasal tissue to swell. This makes the air passages smaller. The nose may feel stuffed up or itchy. The nose may also make extra mucus. This can plug the nasal passages or drip out of the nose. Mucus can drip down the back of the throat (postnasal drip) as well. Sinus tissue can swell. This may cause pain and headache. Common allergy symptoms include:

  • Runny nose with clear, watery discharge

  • Stuffy nose (nasal congestion)

  • Drainage down your throat (postnasal drip)

  • Sneezing

  • Red, watery eyes

  • Itchy nose, eyes, ears, and throat

  • Plugged-up ears (ear congestion)

  • Sore throat

  • Coughing

  • Sinus pain and swelling

  • Headache

It may not be allergies

Other health problems can cause symptoms like those of nasal allergies. These include:

  • Nonallergic rhinitis and viruses, such as colds

  • Irritants and pollutants such as strong odors or smoke

  • Common home cleaning products, especially if they have strong odors

  • Certain medicines

  • Changes in the weather


Your healthcare provider will evaluate you to find the cause of your symptoms. Then they'll advise treatment. If your symptoms are caused by nasal allergies, your provider may prescribe nasal steroid sprays or antihistamines taken by mouth (oral) to help reduce symptoms. Staying away from the allergen will also be advised. You may also be referred to an allergist. An allergist is a healthcare provider who specializes in diagnosing and treating asthma and other allergic diseases.

Causes of Nasal Allergies

Causes of Nasal Allergies

Nasal allergies are most often caused by 1 or more of these 4 kinds of allergens:

  • Pollen (which causes seasonal allergies)
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Animals (including pests such as rodents)
Other substances, called irritants, can bother the nose and make allergy symptoms worse.

Woman holding tissue to nose.


Pollen comes from plants, including trees, grass, and weeds. Plants reproduce by moving tiny grains of pollen from plant to plant. Some pollen is carried by bees. And some is blown by the wind. It’s the wind-blown pollen that causes nasal allergies. The amount of pollen in the air changes from season to season.

Dust mites

Dust mites are tiny bugs too small to see. They can live in mattresses, blankets, stuffed toys, and carpets. Their droppings are a common indoor cause of nasal allergies. Dust mites are normal. They're not an infestation and they don't bite.


Mold loves dark, damp areas, both indoors and outdoors. It tends to grow in bathrooms, basements, refrigerators, and in the soil of houseplants. Mold reproduces by sending tiny grains called spores into the air. If these spores are breathed in, they can cause a nasal allergic reaction. Mold is also present in decaying vegetable matter. For instance, in piles of wet leaves in a yard.


Pets are common causes of nasal allergies. This includes cats, dogs, birds, horses, and rabbits. Flakes of skin (dander), saliva left on fur when an animal cleans itself, urine in litter boxes and cages, and feathers can all cause nasal allergies. Pests, such as rodents, can also be a major cause of allergies. This is especially the case in urban settings. They may not even be in your own apartment.


Irritants don’t cause nasal allergies. But they can make allergy symptoms worse. Examples of irritants include:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Aerosol from e-cigarettes and other vaping devices
  • Perfume
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Smoke from wood stoves or fireplaces
  • Air pollution
  • Car exhaust
  • Strong odors such as from cleaning products

Related Problems

Nasal Allergies: Related Problems

Allergies can cause nasal passages to swell. This narrows the air passages. Allergies also cause increased mucus production in the nose. These changes result in nasal allergy symptoms. Common symptoms include itching, sneezing, stuffy nose, and runny nose. Nasal allergies can also cause problems in other parts of the respiratory system. Some of the more common problems are discussed below. If you think you have any of these problems, talk with your healthcare provider about treatment choices.

Outline of man's head and chest with head turned to side showing swollen sinuses, nasal polyps, postnasal drip, and red eye.

Sinus infections

Fluid may be trapped in the sinuses. Bacteria may grow in trapped fluid. This causes sinus infection (sinusitis) and pain. Sometimes the sinus pain can spread to the jaw and be mistaken for dental problems.


Conjunctivitis is the swelling or inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the thin layer of tissue that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. Allergens can irritate your eyes, including the lining of the conjunctiva. This causes eyes to become red, itchy, puffy, and watery. Conjunctivitis caused by allergens is not contagious. But some forms of conjunctivitis caused by viruses and bacteria are highly contagious.

Ear problems

The eustachian tube connects the middle ear to nasal passages. Allergies can block this tube, and make the ears feel plugged. Fluid may also build up, leading to an ear infection (otitis media).

Nasal polyps

Allergies cause nasal passages to swell. Constant swelling can lead to formation of a sac that comes from the sinuses called a polyp. Polyps can grow large enough to block nasal passages. Nasal polyps (unlike other polyps) don't cause cancer. But they can cause mild pain and a decreased sense of smell and taste.


Asthma is inflammation and swelling of the air passages in the lungs. The symptoms are wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness. Allergies, including nasal allergies, are common in people with asthma.