Skip to content

Allergies Health Center

Font Size

Decongestants for Allergic Rhinitis


Many over-the-counter decongestants are available. The following are a few examples:

Generic Name Brand Name
oxymetazoline Afrin
phenylephrine Neo-Synephrine, Sudafed PE
pseudoephedrine Sudafed

Decongestants are available as nasal sprays, liquids, and pills.

In some areas, medicines containing pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed) are kept behind the pharmacist's counter or require a prescription. You may need to ask the pharmacist for it or have a prescription from your doctor to buy the medicine.

How It Works

Decongestants narrow blood vessels, reducing the blood supply to nasal mucous membranes. This reduces stuffy and runny noses.

  • Pill decongestants narrow blood vessels not only in the nose but also in other parts of the body, which can cause side effects such as high blood pressure and nervousness.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays narrow blood vessels only in the nose and not in other parts of the body, so they rarely cause the side effects that pill decongestants do.
  • You can use nasal decongestant sprays only for a few days. If you use them longer than this, your nasal congestion may get worse (rebound congestion). Using a nasal decongestant continually to avoid rebound congestion can result in dependence on the medicine.

Why It Is Used

You can use decongestants for a stuffy or runny nose caused by allergic rhinitis.

How Well It Works

Nasal spray decongestants work within about 10 minutes and may provide relief for up to 12 hours. Pill decongestants work within 30 minutes and may provide relief for up to 6 hours.

Decongestants do not help sneezing or itching. But some pill decongestants are combined with an antihistamine to help sneezing and itching. Examples include Allerest and Actifed. These medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Before you use them, check the label.

Side Effects

All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Call911or other emergency services right away if you have:

Call your doctor if you have:

Common side effects of this medicine include:

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

What To Think About

Decongestant nasal sprays should be used only for short periods of time (not more than 3 days in a row).

Many over-the-counter medicines for other health problems, such as some diet pills, contain decongestants. To avoid a possible overdose, do not take two medicines containing decongestants at the same time.

Be careful with these medicines. They may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems, so check the label first. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and weight.

Instead of or along with using medicine, you can buy or make saltwater (saline) nasal sprays to help clear up a stuffy nose.

Taking medicine

Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

Advice for women

If you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant, do not use any medicines unless your doctor tells you to. Some medicines can harm your baby. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. And make sure that all your doctors know that you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant.


Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rohit K Katial, MD - Allergy and Immunology
Current as of March 12, 2014

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.

Today on WebMD

man blowing nose
Make these tweaks to your diet, home, and lifestyle.
Allergy capsule
Breathe easier with these products.
cat on couch
Live in harmony with your cat or dog.
Woman sneezing with tissue in meadow
Which ones affect you?

blowing nose
woman with sore throat
lone star tick
Woman blowing nose

Send yourself a link to download the app.

Loading ...

Please wait...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.


Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

cat lying on shelf
Allergy prick test
Man sneezing into tissue
Woman holding feather duster up to face, twitching