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Over-the-Counter Medicines for Allergies

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Topic Overview

Many over-the-counter medicines are available to control symptoms of allergies, including allergic rhinitis. These medicines work well but can have side effects. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label slideshow.gif.

It is usually best to take only single-ingredient allergy or cold preparations, instead of those containing many active ingredients. Talk with a pharmacist if you have any questions.

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. Examples of over-the-counter antihistamines include chlorpheniramine (such as Chlor-Trimeton), diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl), or a newer, nonsedating ("second-generation") antihistamine such as loratadine (Claritin, for example).
    • 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 them at bedtime may help with side effects.
    • Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
  • Decongestants.Decongestants clear up a stuffy (congested) nose. They may be pills or liquids (oral), or a nasal gel, drop, or spray.
    • Possible problems with nasal sprays include irritation, burning or itching of nasal passages, and sneezing. Overuse can make your congestion worse (rebound congestion). So don't use the medicine longer than the label says. Examples of spray decongestants are oxymetazoline (such as Afrin, Dristan, or Zicam Extreme Congestion Relief) and phenylephrine (such as Neo-Synephrine).
    • Decongestants you take by mouth (oral) 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 nonprescription oral decongestants include phenylephrine, such as Sudafed PE.
    Note: Decongestants may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Before you use them, check the label. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight.
  • Steroid nasal sprays. These clear up a stuffy nose. They also help relieve red, itchy, watery eyes. An example is Nasacort.
  • 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 Allerest) and pseudoephedrine/triprolidine (such as Actifed).
  • Decongestant eyedrops. These medicines reduce itching and watering of eyes. Don't use them for more than 3 days in a row. They can cause symptoms when you are not having allergy symptoms. This effect is similar to the rebound congestion of nasal spray decongestants. Examples of over-the-counter eyedrops include naphazoline (Clear Eyes) and tetrahydrozoline (such as Visine). (Saline-only eyedrops for dry eyes may feel good but do not reduce allergy symptoms.)

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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