Medications for Allergy Symptoms

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2022 | Last updated: November 2022

There are many medicines available to treat allergy symptoms. Some are available over-the-counter, and others require a prescription from your doctor. These drugs relieve symptoms rather than treating the underlying cause of the allergy.1-3

Allergy medicines come in different forms, including:1-3

  • Pills, capsules, and tablets
  • Liquids
  • Nasal sprays
  • Inhalers
  • Eye drops
  • Ointments
  • Shots

For some, allergy symptoms come and go with the seasons. For others, they last year-round. This means some people may take their allergy medicines only during some times of the year or only when they come into contact with an allergen. Others take their drugs daily.1-5

Many things can cause allergy symptoms in some people. These include:1-5

  • Foods
  • Latex
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Indoor allergens like pet dander, dust mites, mice, and cockroaches
  • Outdoor allergens like pollen or air pollution
  • Certain drugs

Allergy treatment options

Allergy drugs work in different ways and treat different symptoms. You may be prescribed more than one drug to help treat your allergies. The main classes of drugs to treat allergies include:1-5

  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants
  • Steroid nasal sprays (corticosteroids)
  • Leukotriene receptor agonists (LTRAs)
  • Mast cell stabilizers (cromolyn sodium)

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are drugs used to treat symptoms of an allergic reaction. Antihistamines work quickly by blocking the effects of histamines. These are chemicals released by cells during an allergic reaction. These drugs treat:1-6

  • Runny nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • Other symptoms

Oral antihistamines are the most commonly used therapy to treat hay fever (allergic rhinitis). They are less effective for nasal congestion. Some can cause drowsiness.1-6

Antihistamines come in pills, liquids, nasal sprays, and eye drops. They are mostly used to treat seasonal and indoor allergies. Side effects include drowsiness.3

Decongestants

Decongestants are used to reduce nasal congestion. They work by constricting blood vessels in the nasal passages. This reduces the swelling that makes your nose feel stuffy.1,3

Side effects of oral decongestants include insomnia, irritability, high blood pressure, and headaches. Occasional use of decongestants can be helpful, but discuss this with your doctor, especially if you have high blood pressure.1,3,4

Long-term use of decongestants can cause a condition called rebound congestion. This is a condition that develops when you use decongestants more than 3 days in a row. It results in worse stuffiness.3

Steroid nasal sprays

Steroid nasal sprays (corticosteroids) treat allergies by reducing swelling and inflammation. These drugs make breathing through the nose easier. Nasal sprays are thought to be most helpful for nasal allergies.1,4

Nosebleeds are a common side effect of nasal sprays.1,4

Leukotriene receptor antagonists

LTRAs are drugs taken by mouth to treat both allergy and asthma symptoms. These work by blocking the action of chemicals in the body called leukotrienes. Leukotrienes cause symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. LTRAs help make it easier to breathe.1

In some people, these drugs may lead to mood or behavior changes.1

Mast cell stabilizers

Mast cell stabilizers (cromolyn sodium) help stop your body from releasing histamines. These drugs come as pills, eye drops, or a nose spray and help with itchy, watery eyes or itchy, runny nose.1,3

These drugs are generally safe but need to be taken for several days to produce the full effect. They are mainly used in people with mast cell disorders.1,3

Other treatment options

Immunotherapy is a treatment that gradually introduces small amounts of specific allergens into the body. The body gradually becomes less sensitive to that allergen so symptoms are reduced. This process is called desensitization. Immunotherapy is not a drug but a series of allergy shots, drops, pills, or skin patches.1,2

Epinephrine is used for a serious allergy symptom called anaphylaxis. This is when an allergic reaction causes someone to have trouble breathing, their blood pressure drops, or their heart stops beating. It is life-threatening. Epinephrine is used as an auto-injection.5

People using epinephrine need to call 9-1-1 after the injection. After epinephrine use, a person will require monitoring in an emergency room. In some cases, more than 1 dose of epinephrine is needed to treat a severe reaction.5

Things to know about allergy drugs

These are not all the possible side effects of allergy medicines. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when taking allergy drugs. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when taking these medicines.

Before starting any allergy medicine, talk to your doctor about all your health conditions, and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you take. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

Choosing an allergy medicine can be confusing. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to try figure out which product is right for you.3

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