Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for Allergies
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes a large group of treatments that lie outside mainstream medicine.1
There has been very little research done on the benefits and risks of most complementary therapies for allergies. Research that has been conducted is not as thorough as some traditional studies. This makes it hard for doctors to all agree that a complementary therapy might help or ease allergy symptoms.3
What are complementary and alternative therapies?
CAM therapies are popular, even if unproven. Between 4 and 8 out of every 10 people with allergies use some form of CAM therapy. There are several categories of CAM:3
Biologically based therapies – Diet, herbs, vitamins, supplements, probiotics, and essential oils
Mind-body medicine – Meditation, mindfulness, hypnosis
Body-based systems – Massage, acupuncture, acupuncture
Alternative medical systems – Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, homeopathy
Energy therapies – Magnets, therapeutic touch
If an approach is used with traditional medicine, it is often called complementary. If an approach is used instead of traditional medicine, it is called alternative.1
Here are some of the most popular CAM therapies for allergies.
Nasal irrigation involves rinsing the nose and sinuses with a special saline (salt) solution. This helps clear out mucus and allergens from your nose and sinuses, and softens mucus. The water should be distilled or boiled to prevent infections. There is some evidence that it can be helpful in relieving allergy symptoms.2,3
Herbs and supplements
Certain herbs, such as butterbur, have been shown to decrease the symptoms of some seasonal allergies. Butterbur may work by altering the leukotriene pathway. However, it has also been linked to health complications.2,3
Butterbur may trigger an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies. Its ingredients have been linked to liver damage and cancer.2
Other herbs and supplements some people believe relieve allergy symptoms include:1,2
Spanish needle and acerola
Benifuuki green tea
Grape seed extract
Some of these herbs and supplements are taken in pill form. Nasal sprays including capsaicin, mint, eucalyptus, cinnamon, or cellulose powder are becoming more popular.1
Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means no agency confirms the ingredients. For example, a fish oil supplement may have more or less fish oil than listed on the label. A supplement may also contain ingredients that are not labeled correctly or at all. This can be dangerous. It can lead to taking too much or taking unwanted ingredients.
The FDA created good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to help this situation. GMPs are guidelines for companies to follow when making supplements. The FDA rarely inspects facilities making supplements in the United States. Companies outside the United States do not have these inspections. But many more supplements are sold than are tested. Your doctor can help you decide if a supplement is safe.
Probiotics are another popular home remedy for allergy relief. However, there is conflicting evidence on whether probiotics actually prevent or improve allergy symptoms. Some studies show probiotics improve overall quality of life and nasal symptoms, and others show no benefit.2
Acupuncture and acupressure
Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting needles into the body at specific points in order to restore proper energy flow in the body. Unlike some other CAM therapies, acupuncture has been studied fairly well. It shows limited benefits but may still be an option for people with mild allergies who want to reduce drug use and can afford the sessions.1
Acupressure is similar to acupuncture. But, instead of needles, stainless steel pellets are pressed on the ear and other areas of the skin. One study showed small improvements in sneezing and quality of life, but more research is needed.1
Ayurveda is a medical tradition from India. It includes yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and herbs. One herbal mixture of 7 Indian herbs seemed to help people with hay fever after 6 and 12 weeks. Undesirable side effects were also common and included stomach upset and dry mouth.1
Homeopathy is based on the idea that the body can heal itself and that “like cures like.” This means that something that causes symptoms in a healthy person can cure the person if given in tiny amounts over time. Despite fairly widespread use, studies show no benefit to using this therapy.1,3
Most homeopathic treatments are made from plants or minerals. Many homeopathic allergy treatments are promoted as natural, safe, and effective. However, some formulas may cause side effects or interfere with the medicines you take.1,3
Things to know
Many people think CAM therapies are safe because they are more natural. However, 6 out of 10 allergists report they have patients who have undesirable side effects from using CAM methods.1
Be sure to talk to your doctor about all CAM therapies you use or are thinking of trying. Some CAM therapies may interfere with over-the-counter and prescription drugs or make them less effective. Sometimes, CAM therapies can be dangerous for some people.