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How Allergy Medications Work

separator Many people who have seasonal allergies suffer along until allergy season ends. Others go to the pharmacy and buy over-the-counter antihistamines, which can be effective in suppressing the symptoms but can also cause drowsiness. It can be hard to get through the day when you’re under the effect of an antihistamine, and those that don’t cause drowsiness are often not strong enough to control symptoms.

One of the most recent developments for allergy suffers is that Claritin, which used to be a prescription medication, is now sold over the counter. People who use Claritin and other allergy medications that still require a prescription usually do so because their symptoms are more extreme. Often, their symptoms cause chronic problems, like sinus infections, ear infections, etc.

There’s a confusing array of choices—once-a-day, twice-a-day, non-drowsy, relief from all symptoms, relief from selected symptoms, approved for people over six, approved for people over 12, nasal spray, tablets and syrup. In general, these medications offer the relief of an antihistamine, sometimes combined with a decongestant.

All antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine, which binds to receptor sites on cells to cause congestion, wheezing, sneezing, itching, etc. Once the histamine has bound to a receptor, the antihistamine can’t do much good. It’s most beneficial to take an antihistamine before symptoms begin. Decongestants, on the other hand, can provide relief from symptoms by shrinking swollen blood vessels and decreasing production of mucous.

Probably the biggest benefit of the stronger allergy medications is that they don’t cause drowsiness in most people because the antihistamines cannot bind to receptors on the brain, as they can in less effective allergy drugs. This is quite an individual response though; some patients may experience drowsiness even with the prescription medications.

Determining which medication to take for your allergies can be a challenge. Sometimes, the choice is easy: you use the medication that your healthcare plan covers. Other times, you try the one that is least expensive. But if you do actually have a choice, you’ll need to talk with you doctor about your specific symptoms and your expectations for treatment. 

Obviously, the best way to treat allergies is to avoid exposure to the allergen. This can be virtually impossible if you have seasonal allergies, unless you’re able to stay at home all the time with the windows closed. Some healthcare professionals claim that changes in the diet can help—limiting dairy products and animal protein, for example. Allergy shots are another option. But allergy medications have helped millions of people, and if you use them in moderation, they can be highly effective.

American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology; Asthma and Allergy Advocate, 1999
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