Feb. 18, 2003 -- A frequent runny or stuffy nose may be more than just a vulnerability to pollen, pet dander, or cold germs: It can also make men more susceptible to high blood pressure, suggests a new study.
French researchers report a link between hypertension and rhinitis, a chronic inflammation of the mucous membrane of the nose that often results from hay fever and other allergic reactions and viral infections like the common cold. After studying more than 300 young- and middle-aged adults, they say that men with rhinitis -- but not women -- are nearly three times as likely as those without rhinitis to have elevated systolic blood pressure or bona fide hypertension.
The systolic level -- the higher "top" number in blood pressure readings -- is considered a predictor of heart disease risks more than the lower number or the diastolic blood pressure, the lower blood pressure reading. No link was noted between rhinitis and diastolic readings by the researchers, whose findings are published in the Feb. 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Rhinitis causes a stuffy or runny nose that results from exposure to allergens; smoke, odors and other irritants; nasal polyps; or viruses like that of the common cold. Worldwide, the researchers say, about one in four people have both rhinitis and high blood pressure.
Previous studies have suggested that men with rhinitis are more likely to snore or have obstructive sleep apnea, in which breathing stops during sleep due to an obstruction in the upper breathing apparatus, such as a large tongue or a short or heavy neck. Apnea causes loud snoring and severe daytime sleepiness. Sleep-related problems have been linked to an increased risk of hypertension. Among the researchers who first noted the rhinitis-sleep apnea connection is sleep-disorders researcher Theresa Young, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who noted the association in two studies but was not involved in this new investigation.
"The abnormal breathing events caused by sleep apnea causes immediate consequences that lead to elevated blood pressure, including a drop in arterial blood oxygen," she tells WebMD. Like snoring, rhinitis is characterized by "upper respiratory resistance" and may produce similar effects on blood pressure.
In the new study, the researchers from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris first surveyed each participant on their incidences of hay fever, other allergies, or other factors that cause runny or stuffy nose, then measured their lung function and blood pressure. They found men with rhinitis had average systolic readings of 131 mm Hg -- about seven points higher than those without rhinitis -- and one in three was diagnosed with hypertension compared with one in six without nasal problems.
Why didn't rhinitis seem to elevate blood pressure in women? The researchers theorize that most women studied hadn't yet experienced menopause -- their average was 45 -- so they may have been hormonally protected against several cardiovascular risks. But even after menopause, the investigators say systolic blood pressure increases slowly in women -- typically taking anywhere from five to 20 years to reach levels that occur in men in middle age.
"That may offer some explanation, but there may be other factors, as well," Young tells WebMD. "Sleep apnea is about two to three times more common in men than in women. And the use of decongestants may also play a role -- it's possible that men and women treat their rhinitis differently. Women may use decongestants more, and don't have the nighttime congestion. However, some decongestants can elevate blood pressure, so it could be the other way -- and men use the decongestants more often."
The bottom line: If you're a man who is prone to runny or stuffy nose -- whether year-round or during certain seasons -- the researchers suggest you pay particularly close attention to your blood pressure.