Do seasonal allergies sneak up on you each year and bring you down? Airborne pollens such as tree pollen in spring, grass pollen in summer, and ragweed in the fall cause seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever. They can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including sneezing and a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes.
With so many medications available for hay fever, it's hard to know where to begin. What types of drugs are appropriate for your specific set of symptoms? Should you start with an over-the-counter (OTC) drug or ask your doctor about prescription allergy medicine?
First, discuss your symptoms with a pharmacist or doctor to make sure they're caused by allergies. Then discuss your options for treatment. Be sure to read and follow the label carefully when taking over-the-counter medications, and to follow the dosing directions. Ask your doctor about prescription allergy drugs.
Here are the types of medication most commonly used to treat seasonal allergies. Most over-the-counter medications are also available as generic and store brands.
Allergy Medications: Antihistamines
People with seasonal allergies often start with antihistamines. These drugs can help relieve symptoms such as a runny or itchy nose, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes. This may be the only medication you need.
Many types of antihistamines are available, over the counter and by prescription. They are sometimes combined with other types of medications such as decongestants. Antihistamines come in many forms, such as:
- Eye drops
- Nose sprays
How they work: Antihistamines block the effects of histamine, a chemical the body releases during an allergic reaction. Histamine triggers allergy symptoms in the nose.
Over the counter oral antihistamines include:
- Brompheniramine (Dimetapp Allergy)
- Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- Chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton Allergy)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy)
- Fexofenadine (Allegra)
- Loratadine (Alavert, Claritin)
The main side effect of many over-the-counter oral antihistamines is drowsiness. That’s why you should avoid alcoholic drinks when taking these medications and be careful when driving, using machines, or doing anything else that could be dangerous if you are not alert. Loratadine, cetirizine, and fexofenadine are the only non-drowsy over-the-counter antihistamines. Be sure to carefully follow the label when taking over-the-counter drugs.
Prescription antihistamines include:
- Desloratadine (Clarinex)
- Levocetirizine (Xyzal)
Prescription nasal spray antihistamines:
- Azelastine (Astelin, Astepro)
- Olopatadine (Patanase)
Olopatadine is also available as an eye drop to relieve eye symptoms.
Decongestants relieve stuffy nose and congestion. Available as liquids, tablets, and sprays, they are sometimes combined in a single tablet with antihistamines. Claritin-D and Allegra-D are examples of decongestants combined with an antihistamine.
How they work: Decongestants narrow blood vessels. This helps relieve swollen tissue in nasal passages, relieving a stuffy nose.
Examples of OTC oral decongestants include:
- phenylephrine (Sudafed PE, various store brands)
- pseudoephedrine hydrochloride (Sudafed, various store brands)