Allergy medicine

Bathroom cabinet with a white cross on a mint green circle on the half-open door, ready to hold your allergy medicine

More than 50 million people have allergies in the US. This eye watering (or itch inducing) number makes allergy the sixth leading cause of chronic illness. If you’re one of the 50 million then chances are you’ve explored some of the allergy medicines available. But probably not all.

Read on to find out more about what's available.

Short-term relief vs long-term

Allergy medicine splits into two types; symptom relief and immunotherapy. Symptom relievers can make you feel better. But you’ll probably have to take them again when you breathe in more pollen, dust mite particles or pet dander. Allergy immunotherapy is a long-term treatment. It targets the underlying allergy by reprogramming your immune system. The goal is fewer or milder allergy symptoms.

Advice about allergy medicine

Speak to your healthcare provider to find out which treatment could be right for you. Not all types of allergy medicine are suitable for everyone. Your age and the severity of your allergy are factors. So are other medications you might be on.

A trip to the pharmacy for advice and over-the-counter (OTC) products may be enough for mild allergies or an occasionally itchy nose or eyes. Stronger symptom relievers need a prescription from a doctor. And you should always speak to your healthcare provider before giving a child any allergy medicine.

Antihistamine: the first allergy medicine

Antihistamine is one of the most common symptom-relief allergy medications. It’s been helping people manage allergy symptoms like a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes for over 75 years. Antihistamine blocks the histamine released when your body feels under attack. Histamine is a chemical in your body responsible for a lot of your cold-like symptoms.

Older types of antihistamine can cause drowsiness. Newer versions are less likely to. These second-generation antihistamines generally let you carry on with your day as normal. Take a tablet or drink a liquid and usually wait one to two hours to feel the effect. There are also nasal sprays, eye drops and creams.

A simple guide to

Antihistamines like this nose spray and tablets are among the most commonly used allergy medicines used to relieve symptoms

Corticosteroids: Nasal sprays and other allergy medicine

Corticosteroids are another common allergy medicine. They can help with conditions like hay fever (allergic rhinitis) or eczema (atopic dermatitis). Corticosteroids work by copying a hormone made by your body. They treat the inflammation that’s part of an allergic reaction.

There are corticosteroids nasal sprays. You can also get a corticosteroid and antihistamine nasal spray in one. These reduce inflammation in your nose and may help with the itching and sneezing. Research has shown that some people with hay fever respond well to combination nasal sprays.

Systemic corticosteroids treat your whole body. They come either as pills or injections and are usually prescribed in more severe cases.

Other types of allergy medicine

Leukotriene receptor antagonists are another treatment for hay fever, available with a prescription. They can also ease lower respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath or wheezing.

Leukotrienes are chemicals your body releases when the immune system detects your allergen. Research suggests leukotriene receptor antagonists may be more effective than antihistamines at night.

There are other drugs if the lower respiratory symptoms are the worst for you. Some work together with inhaled corticosteroids to target symptoms like a tight chest.

Did you Know...?

  • Saline is a simple drug-free way to ease itchy eyes and a blocked nose. You can buy a nasal spray or eye drops over-the-counter at the pharmacy. A saline nasal spray may also make allergy medicines like antihistamine more effective.
  • Taking certain allergy medicines from a couple of weeks before your pollen season may help keep your hay fever in check. Hopefully when you do come into contact with your trigger any symptoms will be milder.
  • Allergy medicine has a use-by date just like food. Leftover antihistamines and corticosteroids could be older than you think. If so, they may not work and could even be unsafe.

Too many choices, right? Don’t worry, your healthcare provider or pharmacist will know what is right for you. They can talk you through the different options.

How does symptom-relieving allergy medicine work?

Your immune system does a great job of protecting you from harmful viruses and other dangers. But sometimes it gets it wrong and that’s not so good for your health. An overactive immune system may mistake any number of things for a threat from cat dander to ragweed pollen. This is what leads to your uncomfortable allergy symptoms.

Think of allergy symptoms as a sign that your body is defending itself. Feeling itchy? That’s to make you scratch harmful substances off your skin. Congested or phlegmy? Your body is making more mucus to flush anything undesirable out of your nose. Watery eyes? It’s the same thing. Antihistamines, corticosteroids and leukotriene receptor antagonists are drugs that can counteract this allergic reaction.

Immunotherapy: Allergy medicine to retrain your body

If your symptom-relief medications aren't helping, speak to your healthcare provider. They may suggest allergy immunotherapy as the next step. This targets the underlying cause of your condition.

Your allergy symptoms may improve quite quickly but you must complete the treatment to get the benefit. The full course can take three to five years. This means regular injections at the allergist’s office or tablets, taking the first dose under medical supervision and then at home.

Is it for me?
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Curly haired man in a yellow shirt blowing his nose - could immunotherapy be the right allergy medicine for him?

How does this long-term allergy medicine work?

It might surprise you but immunotherapy dates back to 1911. A small amount of your allergen is given to you – on purpose. Not once but over and over again. In time your body learns not to react so much or sometimes not at all.

The goal is that your allergen stops being a trigger. Research does show that people have fewer symptoms after allergy immunotherapy. ​​The lasting effects vary from person to person. Symptoms return for some while others may find relief lasts for years.

What triggers can allergy medicine treat?

Symptom-relief medications don’t care what your trigger is. They tackle a runny nose, itchy watery eyes, skin reactions and so on no matter what caused them. You could be allergic to pollen, pets or dust mites and the medications used will be the same.

Allergy immunotherapy is different. It’s allergen specific. That is, you get repeated tiny doses of your trigger. Immunotherapy can treat allergies such as:

  • Pollen (tree, grass and weed)
  • Mold
  • House dust mites
  • Animal dander (cats, dogs and horses)
  • Insect venom (bee and wasp)
  • Peanut

Allergy medicine for kids

Young girl in a red checked shirt tipping her head back as a grown-up puts allergy medicine for kids into her itchy eyes

It is an established approach to pick a single allergen to ease the symptoms caused by many. Immunotherapy with one grass pollen can be effective in treating people sensitized to other grasses. In this case it’s clear the allergens are related. But the connection can also be less obvious. Sometimes it's about picking the allergen that's causing the most trouble.

For instance, you may have dust mite allergy and have mild to moderate symptoms all year. But then pollen season hits and your allergies get much worse. Even though symptoms are worst during the pollen months, treating the dust mite allergy can be the most effective way to tackle this combination and ease symptoms caused by other allergies. It's about dealing with the underlying main cause of allergy symptoms.

Can children take allergy medicine?

They can but it must be an allergy medicine specifically for kids. Antihistamines are available for kids over the age of one. You can buy mild versions without a prescription.

But do speak to your healthcare provider before giving children any allergy medicine. There are also OTC corticosteroids for young children. They may also be prescribed stronger types for symptoms like a congested nose or dry skin. But it’s less common with children.

Meanwhile leukotriene receptor antagonists may help children struggling with lower respiratory symptoms or hay fever. There are different forms depending how old your child is.

Allergy immunotherapy is not usually available for children until the age of five. And there is evidence early immunotherapy may prevent the development of new allergies and allergic conditions as well as tackling current symptoms.

Corticosteroid nasal sprays are anti-inflammatory allergy medicine and can ease hay fever symptoms

A simple guide to

Allergy medicine: the side effects

Like all drugs, allergy medicine can cause side effects. Read with care the information leaflet that comes with antihistamine and corticosteroid medication. It’s particularly important to watch your child’s reaction.

Immunotherapy side effects tend to happen at the start of treatment and reduce over time. Your immune system may give you hints that it’s fighting what it thinks is a harmful substance. Remember this is all part of the treatment. Tell your healthcare provider if there are any side effects you’re concerned about.

Allergy medicine for severe reactions

The medical name for a severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis. Some allergies are more likely to cause it; antibiotics, aspirin and other medicines, food, insect venom and latex. It’s important to get treatment right away.

Epinephrine auto-injectors are a treatment available with a prescription to people with serious allergies.

Epinephrine is another word for adrenaline. Auto-injectors can stop severe allergic reactions from becoming life-threatening. You must carry them with you at all times.

There are different auto-injectors. It’s a good idea to run through the instructions with your family in case you have a severe reaction and need their help. Auto-injectors do expire so check and renew yours when necessary. Sign up to get a text or email when your injector is about to expire.

Allergy medications and testing

If you've never had a diagnosis, or your symptoms have changed, then you may need an allergy test. Your healthcare provider may suggest a skin prick or blood test to help identify your trigger.

Certain allergy medications can interfere with allergy test results. For example, you must stop antihistamines before a skin prick test. Let your healthcare provider know what medications you’re on. They’ll advise you what to do.

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