For millions of people, the simple act of petting a cat, dusting the shelves or opening a window invites sniffles and sneezes. But it’ not the cat, dust or pollen that’s responsible for your symptoms – it’s an overreaction by your own immune system.

What is it?

‘Allergic rhinitis’ is the medical term for the nasal symptoms caused by allergies to a variety of airborne particles. The condition can be an occasional inconvenience or a problem so severe that it interferes with almost every aspect of daily life. If you notice symptoms in warm weather, you may have seasonal allergies, commonly called hay fever, triggered by tree or grass pollen or ragweed. If you have symptoms year-round – called perennial allergies – the most likely culprits are mites in household dust, mould or animal hair. You may be allergic to one or more of these irritants. Both types of allergies have the same symptoms. People with allergic rhinitis may have decreased resistance to colds, flu, sinus infections and other respiratory illnesses.

What causes it?

When bacteria, viruses or other substances enter the body, the immune system sets out to destroy those that can cause illness, but ignores harmless particles such as pollen. Some poeple’s immune systems, however, can’t tell the difference between threatening and benign material. As a result, innocuous particles can trigger the release of a naturally occurring substance called histamine and other inflammatory compounds in the area where the irritant entered – the nose, throat or eyes.

No one knows why the immune system overeacts in this way, but some experts think that poor nutrition and pollutants in the air may weaken the system. Allergic rhinitis also runs in some families.

What are the symptoms?

  • Red, itchy or puffy eyes, sometimes with ‘allergic shiners’ – dark circles around the eyes.
  • Sneezing.
  • Swollen nasal passages.
  • Runny nose with a clear discharge.
  • Irritated throat
  • Fatigue.

Can supplements help?

For seasonal allergies, in place of prescription or over-the-counter drugs, try quercetin. Whereas drugs simply block the effect of histamine, this flavonoid inhibits its release – without any side effects. Combining it with the herb nettle it can combat sneezing, itching, and swollen nasal passages.

Vitamin A and vitamin C support the immune system; vitamin A is the main antioxidant in the respiratory passages, and vitamin C may also have anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effects. Pantothenic acid may reduce nasal congestion. Take these three nutrients during the allergy season, even if you opt for traditional drugs to relieve specific symptoms. And, for severe cases of hay fever, the prescription herb ephedra (Ma huang) may be useful because it opens the respiratory passages. You can use ephedra with quercetin and nettle, but not with prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants.

What else can I do?

  • Stay indoors with the windows closed when pollen counts are high.
  • Use an air-conditioner, in the car as well as the home. (Clean filters regularly.)
  • Eliminate carpets and use washable loose covers on furniture.
  • Encase mattresses and pillow in allergy-proof covers and wash bedding weekly in very hot water. Dust mites collect in these areas.
  • Clean damp areas to prevent the growth of mold.

Did you know?

Garden flowers rarely cause allergies because their pollen is quite heavy and cannot be carried by the air alone. It must be transported by bees or other insects.