What can help treat allergies?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

The two types of medications used to treat skin allergies—topical or oral medications—work in different ways. Most topical medications used for skin allergies contain steroids, which work by blocking certain immune responses that cause the skin to become inflamed and itchy. Antihistamines work by blocking histamine, a chemical that produces an allergic response.

There are lots of simple, do-at-home options for minimizing some of the most common potential side effects of allergy medications.

Your first step is to figure out whether what you're feeling is a side effect, or something else. For example, feeling drowsy or dehydrated might be due to an over-the-counter antihistamine—or it could simply be from salty foods or poor sleep. So pay attention to your behavior and get to know your own body. Do you know how many hours of sleep you normally need to feel refreshed? How many glasses of water you drink each day? Track your health behaviors in a diary so you can pinpoint what's normal for you and what's not. Here's a printable journal you can use to track all of your health information.

Here are some simple strategies for avoiding—or minimizing—some of the most common allergy medication side effects:

  • Hydrate your body. Keeping a water bottle handy and taking frequent sips can help counter a dry, sticky mouth—a potential side effect of some antihistamines. Gum or breath mints can help, too.
  • Hydrate your nasal passages. Did your decongestant work a little too well at drying up your stuffy nose? To remoisten your sinus passages, try using a nasal saline spray or a neti pot. A steamy shower or a humidifier can do the trick as well.
  • Hydrate your eyes. Putting a few lubricating eye drops into your peepers can help with dry eyes. Or lay a warm, wet washcloth across your eyes a couple of times a day.
  • Switch to another allergy medication. Are you taking first-generation antihistamines? Drowsiness is a common side effect. Ask your doctor about newer, second-generation antihistamines that have less of a sedating effect, and take antihistamines at bedtime, when drowsiness will be less of an issue and actually help you sleep. Also, a spray form of decongestant may cause less jitteriness than oral decongestants.

Using your medications correctly can also help minimize problems. For example, taking decongestant nasal sprays for longer than your doctor recommends may cause rebound stuffiness. Some allergy medications are contraindicated in people with certain health conditions. So follow doctor's orders.

Anti-inflammatory agents used for allergies include corticosteroids that dampen inflammation; mast cell stabilizers, which reduce the chemicals that fan the inflammatory response; and antileukotrienes, which reduce leukotrienes, chemicals that inflame the tissue of the airways. Antileukotrienes are used primarily in cases of persistent asthma.

Antihistamines are medications that block chemicals called histamines, which are released by the body's defense cells. These medications include Benadryl, Atarax, Zyrtec, etc. Some other medications for allergies include steroids that also help reduce inflammation and reduce the body's immune response. There are oral and nasal steroids. Other sinus medications include decongestants that reduce nasal stuffiness.

Dr. Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Practitioner

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.

The first-line therapy against allergy symptoms is over-the-counter (or OTC) antihistamines such as Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra and Claritin. Beware of fatigue and “fogginess” with Benadryl and Zyrtec. Because of this, I usually recommend trying the latter two, which are non-drowsy. Here’s a little secret too: Go for the generic brand. It's several bucks cheaper and often (but not always) just as effective.

Many of the OTC allergy medicines can be bought in combination with a decongestant (i.e., Claritin-D, Zyrtec-D, etc.). This can be helpful for short durations (3-4 days) when the nasal drainage is thick and has led to headache. Avoid decongestants for prolonged periods of time as this can raise blood pressure and cause other side effects. As always, talk to your doctor about what OTC medications are safe for you, keeping in mind that certain heart, thyroid, bladder and eye issues can be worsened by decongestants.

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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.