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Your nose is running like a faucet, your eyes are itchy and watery, and you keep sneezing. You might have a cold, but it might also be allergic rhinitis, also called nasal allergies or hay fever. All of those symptoms may add a layer of minor misery to your pregnancy. However, pregnant women can rest assured that their allergic rhinitis will not affect their babies.
All allergies are caused when the body overreacts to something that triggers the immune system. That something is called an allergen, and your body reacts as if it is under attack by something more serious, like a virus or bacteria. With allergic rhinitis, the allergen is usually something you’ve breathed in, such as pollen, dust, mold, pollution, or animal dander. Other allergens include cigarettes smoke, car exhaust, cockroaches, and the odors from perfumes, cosmetics and detergents.
Allergic rhinitis can be seasonal at certain times of year, such as when plants like grasses and ragweed are releasing pollen, or it can occur all year due to allergens like dust, pet dander, or mold that you are always around. Some people are unlucky enough to get both types of nasal allergies and may have a constant level of sneezing and runny nose that spikes in severity in spring or fall.
Allergies may be very specific. You may be fine around dogs but be allergic to cats, for example. You may also develop a nasal allergy even as an adult.
The most common symptoms of allergic rhinitis are:
- Nasal congestion (a stuffy nose) or sinus congestion
- Itchiness in the eyes and nose
- Red eyes
- Watery eyes
- Puffy or swollen eyelids
Symptoms of allergic rhinitis overlap a great deal with the symptoms of a cold. Both can cause a runny nose and sneezing, but allergies almost never cause general aches and pains or a fever and rarely cause a sore throat. Even though it is called hay fever, you don’t get a fever. Another difference is that a cold usually goes away in several days, while allergic rhinitis may linger for months.
Most antihistamines used to treat nasal allergies have a long history of safe use during pregnancy.
The best treatment for nasal allergies is to avoid coming into contact with whatever is causing your allergy. This can be difficult but is still your best defense. You may need to see an allergist, a physician who specializes in treating allergies, to determine what you are allergic to.
If your allergy symptoms are due to pollen, keep your windows closed and use air conditioning as much as possible during high pollen times. During spring, summer, and fall, weather reports often list the levels of pollen in the air. Drive with your windows closed. Wearing sunglasses when outdoors can help keep pollen out of your eyes.
If your allergy symptoms occur year-round, check your house for mold and if you find moldy areas, have them cleaned. Using a dehumidifier to dry the air in your house can help prevent the growth of mold.
If you are allergic to animal dander, wash your hands after you pet an animal. Some people with nasal allergies reduce levels of animal dander by bathing their dog or cat regularly.
Medications for allergic rhinitis include antihistamines, corticosteroids, and decongestants, all of which treat the symptoms like runny nose, itchy eyes, stuffy nose, and sneezing.
Most antihistamines used to treat nasal allergies have a long history of safe use during pregnancy. Decongestants are safe when used intermittently but may cause a worsening of symptoms if they are overused. More severe allergy symptoms may need stronger drugs, such as corticosteroids. Talk with your obstetrician or midwife before you use anything to treat your nasal allergy symptoms.
If you cannot avoid whatever it is you are allergic to, immunotherapy—allergy shots—may offer you some relief. These are administered by an allergist and consist of a series of tiny injections of your allergen. Allergy shots can help desensitize your body to the allergen. Although they are considered safe, most physicians put off starting allergy shots for pregnant women until after they deliver.