Over-the-Counter Medicines for Allergies

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Over-the-Counter Medicines for Allergies

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Many over-the-counter medicines are available to control symptoms of allergies, including allergic rhinitis. These medicines work well but can have side effects.

Medicines that are safe when they are used alone can sometimes cause problems if you take them with other medicines. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking medicine for something else and want to try an over-the-counter medicine for your allergy.

Over-the-counter medicines used to control the symptoms of allergies, including allergic rhinitis, include:

  • Antihistamines. Antihistamines reduce or stop sneezing, runny noses, and itching. Over-the-counter ("first-generation") antihistamines often make you feel sleepy or tired. They may also affect your coordination, even when they do not make you drowsy. Because of this, you should not take them before you drive or operate machinery. Another common side effect is a dry mouth. Taking these antihistamines at bedtime may help with side effects. Examples of over-the-counter antihistamines include chlorpheniramine (such as Chlor-Tripolon), diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl), or a newer, non-sedating ("second-generation") antihistamine such as loratadine (Claritin, for example). Before you give antihistamine medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6.
  • Nasal decongestants. Decongestants clear up a stuffy (congested) nose. You can take them as nasal sprays or pills.
    • Possible problems with nasal sprays include irritation, burning or itching of nasal passages, and sneezing. You should not use them for more than 3 days in a row, because they can make your congestion worse (rebound congestion). An example of an over-the-counter spray decongestant is oxymetazoline, such as Afrin or Dristan.
    • Decongestants you take as pills (oral decongestants) can cause you to feel nervous or shaky, have a rapid heart rate, or have trouble sleeping. If you have high blood pressure, oral decongestants may make it worse. You should use them only if your high blood pressure is under control. Examples of non-prescription oral decongestants include pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed or Entex.
    • Before you give decongestant medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6. Don't give decongestants to a child younger than 6 unless your doctor tells you to. If your child’s doctor tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do.
  • Antihistamine/decongestant combinations. These combination pills work on most of the symptoms of allergies. Usually the decongestant decreases the drowsiness caused by the antihistamine, but some people feel nervous and sleepy at the same time ("tired and wired"). Examples of over-the-counter antihistamine/decongestant combinations include pseudoephedrine/chlorpheniramine maleate (such as Chlor-Tripolon Decon) and pseudoephedrine/triprolidine (such as Actifed). Before you give antihistamine/decongestant combination medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6.
  • Decongestant eyedrops. These medicines reduce itching and watering of eyes. Do not use them for more than 3 days in a row, because they can cause symptoms when you are not having an allergic reaction. This effect is similar to the rebound congestion of nasal spray decongestants. Examples of over-the-counter eyedrops include tetrahydrozoline (such as Visine) and naphazoline (Clear Eyes, Diopticon, Vasocon). (Saline-only eyedrops for dry eyes may feel good but do not reduce allergy symptoms.) Before you give decongestant medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6.

If over-the-counter medicines do not improve your symptoms, or if they cause bothersome side effects, such as drowsiness, talk with your doctor about prescription medicines.

When taking either over-the-counter or prescription medicines, you may want to keep a medicine record. Use a notebook to record information on medicine you use, including:

  • Name of the medicine.
  • Form of the medicine, such as tablet, capsule, liquid, eyedrops, or spray.
  • How much you take or use and how many times a day you use it.
  • Special instructions.
  • Side effects you notice.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Harold S. Nelson, MD - Allergy and Immunology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Last Revised November 21, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.