How should I choose an allergy medicine?

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
There are so many allergy remedies out there, including antihistamines, decongestants, and expectorants. It's often tough to figure out when to take which drug. Here are the basics:
  • Decongestants simply narrow the blood vessels in the lining of the nose, allowing air to pass more easily. Use these when your nose is stopped up. Caution: do not use if you have high blood pressure, as they can potentially raise your pressure.
  • Antihistamines block the release of histamine, the chemical in your body that causes cells to swell and leak fluid, resulting in itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny nose. Use these to dry up, but not when you are simply stuffy.
  • Expectorants are all medications that include guaifenesin. This drug breaks up mucus, allowing it to drain down from sinuses or be coughed up from your lungs. It won't work if you are dehydrated, so drink extra water, especially if you are also taking an antihistamine, because they dry up mucus and that makes it tougher to break up and clear. Use these when you have sinus and ear pressure or if you have a cold that seems to settle in your chest. There is little evidence-based medicine to support the use of these, but clinically doctors see them do a great deal to relieve head congestion and help avoid the use of antibiotics.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.