A hand reaches for a tissue from a tissue box

It’s easy to blame sniffling or sneezing on seasonal allergies.

But such symptoms can also be caused by year-round triggers—such as mold, dust mites, or pet dander—rather than by seasonal pollens. (Allergies are the immune system’s reaction to something it mistakenly sees as dangerous.)

You may also be dealing with viral rhinitis (better known as a common cold) or another nonallergic form of rhinitis, which refers to inflammation and irritation of the nasal passages that typically results in runny nose and congestion.

Here are some of the common causes of this discomfort—plus treatments that could help.

The Reason for the Sneezin'

There’s evidence that allergies may decrease with age. But some older adults still have allergies. For instance, according to Swiss research cited by a 2017 review published in the journal Aging & Disease, 13 percent of men and 15 percent of women over 60 said they experienced allergy symptoms.

Another study of older Polish adults found that 13 percent had seasonal allergies and a larger share—17 percent—experienced year-round allergies.

More on Allergies

Nonallergic rhinitis, meanwhile, may become more common with age—possibly because our nasal linings thin and our immune system becomes less robust. Some researchers have estimated that in people over 50, more than 60 percent of rhinitis is nonallergic.

There are several types of nonallergic rhinitis, including vasomotor (chronic runny nose and congestion sometimes related to irritants like smoke, dust, pollution, or fragrance) and atrophic (nasal symptoms that result from mucous membranes thinning and drying out).

Because the symptoms are similar, it can be tricky to know which type of rhinitis you’re dealing with. If you suspect you have allergic rhinitis, your doctor can do blood or skin tests to determine which allergens are triggering your symptoms.

“Nonallergic rhinitis triggers are much more difficult to identify,” says Ronald Purcell, M.D., an allergist at Cleveland Clinic. A diagnosis usually involves first ruling out common allergens.  

How to Find Real Relief

Whatever the cause, a few items available in drugstores could help treat rhinitis symptoms (consult your doctor before starting any new medication):

• Over-the-counter steroid sprays, such as fluticasone (Flonase or generic) and triamcinolone (Nasacort or generic), can ease runny nose and congestion.
• Saline sprays and neti pots—teapot-shaped devices that clear the nasal passages using distilled or sterile water—“can effectively rinse out irritants, decrease inflammation in the nose, and aid in clearing mucus,” Purcell says.
• Prescription antihistamine sprays, such as azelastine (Astelin or generic), can help relieve symptoms like congestion and sneezing.

Oral antihistamines are also an option, but older adults may want to avoid them, says Sarah K. Wise, M.D., professor of rhinology, sinus surgery and otolaryngic allergy at Emory University. “Some are sedating and may cause urinary retention.”

Have a profuse runny nose? A relatively new in-office treatment called the ClariFix device can be used to freeze certain nasal nerves. “There are a few small studies that suggest it is not harmful and can decrease symptoms,” says Purcell, “but I would not recommend it over other treatments until better-quality studies are available.” 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health