Allergy Medications: Which Drugs Treat Which Symptoms

allergies, seasonal allergies, allergy relief
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When spring is in the air, as the millions of people who suffer from seasonal allergies know, so are pollen, mold and other microscopic annoyances.

Seasonal allergies are caused by an errant immune reaction. Mistaking common environmental elements for a health threat, the body sends out antibodies via white blood cells, which release protein substances to neutralize the “invaders.” These proteins — the best known is called histamine — usually settle in vulnerable and important areas such as the respiratory tract, stimulating the swelling, itching and mucous production we associate with common allergies.    

Luckily for sufferers, a number of both over-the-counter and prescription remedies are readily available. They come in a variety of formats and work in different ways, however. Let’s have a look.

Over-the-counter medications


Most allergy sufferers first reach for basic, over-the-counter antihistamine pills, which work by blocking the excitable chemical histamine from going to town on your sinuses. Oral antihistamines contain the active drugs loratadine or cetirizine, marketed at the drugstore as Claritin and Zyrtec, respectively. When ingested, the chemicals in the pill bind to the natural histamines in the body and block them from agitating your system, providing relief from the all-over itching and congestion.

But beware! Some oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl, contain ingredients that cause drowsiness. Other over-the-counter pills commonly used to combat allergies are decongestants, which contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine (Sudafed is one brand name). Pseudoephedrine provides quick relief for sinus congestion but is known for its side effects, including dizziness, anxiety and irregular heartbeat.

Nasal sprays

Nasal remedies attack allergies head-on. Most over-the-counter nasal sprays are decongestant in medical make-up and are very effective in relieving sinus pressure specifically because they send their active ingredients straight to the source, quickly constricting irritated blood vessels in the nose. Examples of over-the-counter nasal decongestants are Neo-Synephrine (containing phenylephrine) and Afrin (oxymetazoline).

Eye drops

Itchy, watery eyes are a hallmark of allergy season, and that can make it difficult to focus at work and in your personal life. Decongestant eye drops soothe sufferers with active ingredients tetrahydrozoline and naphazoline, which shrink inflamed blood vessels in the eyes. Overuse of these drugs — sold under the brand names Visine, Clear Eyes, and others — may have the opposite effect, however, so they’re meant as short-term solutions. Some antihistamine eye drops (Alaway, Zaditor) are also available over the counter. Employing the drug ketotifen, these tend to treat allergy symptoms in the eyes in a more sweeping way, but need to be applied more frequently.

Prescription medications


Allergy sufferers in need of serious relief may turn to their doctor for prescription medications. Prescription allergy pills can cause stronger side effects than their over-the-counter counterparts and so are usually taken for short stretches of time. Examples of prescription allergy medication include Clarinex, an oral antihistamine containing desloratadine, and Singulair, a montelukast drug targeted especially to asthmatics with allergies. These pills function in the same way as over-the-counter medications in relieving the painful sinus congestion, itching and sneezing associated with seasonal allergies.

Nasal spray

Prescription nasal sprays are usually offered to patients with chronic allergic rhinitis or — in layman’s terms — a clogged-up nose that just won’t stop running. Chronic rhinitis is a staple of seasonal allergies, but can affect some people worse than others. Many prescription nasal sprays deploy a combination of antihistamine and decongestant properties, and occasionally a stronger corticosteroid element, to attack the swelling, itching, running and postnasal drip in one shot. Astelin (azelastine), Flonase (fluticasone) and Nasonex (mometasone) are all well-known brands.

Eye drops

Allergic conjunctivitis is a severe reaction to airborne allergens and causes extreme redness, itchiness and inflammation of the eye. To treat it, sufferers often turn to prescription antihistamine eye drops, which are usually combined with decongestants for maximum effect. Active ingredients found in these drops include emedastine (sold as Emadine) and olopatadine (Patanol).

Allergy shots and immunotherapies

Allergy shots are sometimes prescribed to allergy sufferers who have adverse reactions to medications that are ingested, as well as for people who want to be more aggressive with their treatment plans. With this option, doctors inject small amounts of actual extract from the allergen in the hopes of making the patient more tolerant to the allergen over time. The process may take years, but can be especially effective for those allergic to dust or cat dander, and for preventing the development of asthma in children.

Natural allergy remedies

Many people who take allergy medications complain that the side effects make them feel drowsy, buzzy or anxious. Short of moving to a barren desert, sufferers looking for relief from environmental allergens without the help of drugs have a few options.

Both drinking a cup of hot tea and breathing steam may loosen congested mucous membranes. Homeopaths suggest a cocktail of supplements, acupuncture and plenty of rest and fluids. Some studies have also touted the benefits of butterbur, an herb with natural anti-inflammatory properties; other dataindicate that it is no better than placebo.

Note: This article is for general health information only. This information is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Readers should not rely on information for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.