Environmental nonallergic rhinitis

Clin Allergy Immunol. 2007;19:249-66.


The upper airway occupies a sentinel position with respect to the physical and chemical qualities of the inspired atmosphere. Responses of the upper airway can be acute or chronic, as well as primary (sensory) or secondary (physiologic). Olfaction and sensory irritation are cofactors in the perception of air quality. Secondary reflex responses to airborne irritants may include blockage (airflow obstruction), secretion (with or without associated inflammation), and alterations in mucociliary clearance. Of the above end points, obstruction has been documented in response to a variety of agents, including acetic acid vapor, ammonia, Cl2, ETS, mixed VOCs, vapors from carbonless copy paper, and (variably) SO2. Alterations in mucociliary clearance have been variably observed with SO2 and ETS exposure. A neutrophilic inflammatory response has been documented after acute exposure to either ozone or VOCs, and metaplastic mucosal changes after prolonged exposures to photochemical mixed air pollutants. Augmented reactivity to irritants is a phenotypic characteristic of both nonallergic and allergic rhinitis; however, understanding of underlying mechanisms remains elusive (75-78). Differential physiologic responsiveness to environmental irritant stimuli has been documented by allergic rhinitis status for acetic acid and Cl2 (objectively) and for mixed VOCs (subjectively only). Differential responsiveness by nonallergic rhinitis status has, to our knowledge, been documented for paper dust only, although a somewhat wider array of pollutants (including ETS and carbonless copy paper) has been studied in groups differing by self-reported pollutant reactivity. Interestingly, although the congestive response to allergens and irritants is similar, the underlying mechanisms appear to differ, with neither mast cell degranulation nor cholinergic parasympathetic reflexes appearing critical to the response (Fig. 3). Although neuropeptide release does not accompany Cl2-induced nasal obstruction, in one model system (hypertonic saline challenge), substance P release accompanied augmented secretions (80,81). In yet another hypertonic model (dry mannitol powder challenge), arachidonic acid metabolites characteristic of epithelial cell activation accompanied nasal obstruction (82). The relevance of these model systems to environmentally realistic (airborne) irritants remains unclear at this time. Overall, nonallergic rhinitis has received considerably less attention than has allergic rhinitis in the context of descriptive, pathophysiologic, and intervention studies. This statement applies equally in the context of environmental nonallergic rhinitis. As is hopefully evident from the above discussion, many potential research questions in this area remain to be addressed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Air Pollution
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Humans
  • Nose / anatomy & histology
  • Nose / innervation
  • Rhinitis / etiology*
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects


  • Air Pollutants
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution