Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to substances called allergens, such as pollen, pet hair and dander, dust, mold, and more. Fortunately, a range of products is available to manage common allergy symptoms such as stuffy nose, sneezing, sinus headaches, and itchy eyes. This guide will help you find the right products to meet your health needs, lifestyle, and budget.
Keep the following in mind as you choose allergy medicines:
Most minor and seasonal allergies can be treated at home with over-the-counter products, but call your doctor if you experience persistent and severe sinus pain, fever, difficulty breathing, or swelling of the lips, mouth, or throat. These symptoms may signal a more serious health problem.
Use over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications according to package directions and pay attention to listed side effects. Some allergy medications cause extreme drowsiness, making every day activities such as driving unsafe.
If you are already managing a health condition, consider your medications before selecting a product. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if unsure about whether any particular allergy medication is safe for you.
Compare ingredients to avoid accidentally taking two medications together that contain the same active ingredients, and check with your doctor about which products are okay to take together and how best to avoid mixing drugs that should not be combined.
What they are: Antihistamine medications block the effects of histamines, a substance produced by the body as part of an allergic reaction, which causes several of the most common allergy symptoms.
Why to buy: Antihistamine pills, liquids, nasal sprays, and eye drops offer relief from allergies that are not well managed with other medications or lifestyle changes. Liquid products take effect more quickly, while nasal sprays and eye drops offer a way to target allergy symptoms affecting only the eyes or sinuses. Antihistamine pills, liquids, and eye drops may be purchased over the counter; antihistamine nasal sprays are available by prescription only. Newer generation antihistamines, such as loratadine, do not cause drowsiness in most people.
Things to consider: Antihistamines will not lessen symptoms of a cold or other nonallergy conditions. Antihistamine pills, liquids, and nasal sprays can cause drowsiness and dry mouth. Nasal sprays also may cause fatigue and nosebleeds in a small percentage of people who use them, and zinc nasal sprays have caused permanent loss of smell in some people. Antihistamines may need to be used continuously during the allergy season to treat seasonal allergies. Do not use antihistamines if you take MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) medication and do not take antihistamines in combination with other drugs that cause drowsiness, such as sleep aids, alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers.
What they are: Decongestants open up nasal passages by constricting blood vessels in the lining of the nose. They are available over the counter as pills, liquids, nasal sprays, and eye drops.
Why to buy: Decongestants offer quick relief from nasal and sinus congestion. They are available at any pharmacy and are relatively inexpensive.
Things to consider: Decongestant nasal sprays should not be taken for more than five days at a time. Longer-term use can lead to a worsening of symptoms, a condition called rebound effect, or rhinitis medicamentosa. Oral decongestants should be used occasionally, for a maximum of a few days at a time, for best effect. When taken long-term, these medications can lose their effectiveness and may even worsen symptoms. Do not use decongestants without consulting your doctor if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or irregular heart beats, thyroid problems, diabetes, glaucoma or increased pressure in the eye, an enlarged prostate or difficulty urinating, liver disease, kidney disease, or are taking a MAOI medication.
Antihistamine & Decongestant Combinations
What they are: Antihistamine and decongestant combination pills and liquids contain both of these medications in one product.
Why to buy: Combination products offer the convenience of addressing the widest variety of allergy symptoms with a single product.
Things to consider: The same cautions that apply to antihistamines and decongestants individually apply to products that contain both of these medications. If you only have congestion, stick to a decongestant. If your allergy symptoms are relieved with antihistamines alone, you do not need a combination product. Doctors recommend taking the fewest medications, at the lowest dose that relieves your symptoms.
What they are: Corticosteroids, which lessen inflammation, come as pills, nasal sprays, inhalers, and eye drops, and are available by prescription only. Prescription nasal sprays and inhalers are most commonly used to manage allergies.
Why to buy: Corticosteroid nasal sprays address nasal and sinus symptoms due to allergies, but can reduce inflammation due to other causes as well. Inhalers are used for cough or breathing difficulties. If you have chronic sinusitis, bronchitis, or asthma that are related to or worsened by allergies, these products may be a good option for you.
Things to consider: Symptoms often return when corticosteroid nasal sprays and inhalers are stopped, so they may be prescribed for years. To date, no studies have identified health risks linked to long-term nasal spray use, but inhaled corticosteroids may lead to decreased bone density. If you use inhaled corticosteroids long-term, ask your doctor if you should take calcium and vitamin D to protect your bones.
Corticosteroid nasal sprays can cause burning, dryness, irritation and itching in the nose and throat, nosebleeds, runny nose, headaches, or upset stomach in some people. Corticosteroids in any form may not be appropriate for people with glaucoma.