There are many over-the-counter medications that are used to relieve the symptoms of an allergic reaction. These medications are classified into six categories, which are briefly explained in this article.
An allergy can be termed as a disorder of the immune system, where it becomes hypersensitive to certain substances called allergens. Usually, allergens are harmless substances, but a highly sensitive immune system recognizes them as potentially harmful foreign particles. The result is the production of antibodies against the allergens.
Whenever the body is exposed to such allergens, the antibodies stimulate the production of histamines and other chemicals to destroy them. But in the process, these chemicals produce an allergic reaction. Some of the common allergens that can produce an allergic reaction are, dust, pollen, mold, animal dander, mites, insect bites, and certain foods and drugs. Allergies or allergic reactions are generally treated with some medications, which are discussed below.
Medications for Allergy
An allergic reaction usually produces symptoms like sneezing, a runny nose, itching, hives, skin rash, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. The various types of medications that are commonly used for treating this condition are broadly classified into six categories – antihistamines, decongestants, steroids, bronchodilators, mast cell stabilizers, and leukotriene modifiers.
These medications work by preventing histamines from attaching to the histamine receptors present in the blood vessels. Antihistamines help alleviate symptoms like redness, swelling, and itching. They are available as oral antihistamines (pills and liquid), antihistamine nasal sprays, and antihistamine eye drops.
Examples of oral antihistamines are, Claritin or loratadine, Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra, and Chlorpheniramine. Antihistamines are of two types – older or first-generation antihistamines, and second-generation antihistamines. First-generation antihistamines are known for their sedative effects, while the second-generation antihistamines are non-sedating, i.e., they do not cause drowsiness.
Decongestants are basically used for relieving nasal and sinus congestion caused by an allergic reaction. They come in the form of nasal sprays, oral decongestants, and decongestant eye drops. The prolonged use of these drugs can worsen allergy symptoms. Some of the common decongestants are, Zyrtec-D, Sudafed tablets or liquid, Claritin-D, phenylephrine, and oxymetazoline.
Decongestants cause the blood vessels and tissues to shrink, in order to reduce congestion, mucus secretion, and nasal swelling. However, an excessive use of oral decongestants and nasal sprays can cause irregular heartbeat, headaches, irritability, dizziness, high blood pressure, and tremors. On the other hand, the prolonged use of decongestant eye drops can damage the blood vessels of the eye, besides causing redness of the eyes.
Steroids or Corticosteroids
Corticosteroids are mainly used for reducing the inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. These medications can provide relief in nasal congestion and stuffiness, a runny nose, asthma, skin allergies, and allergic conjunctivitis. They can be found in the form of pills, liquid, sprays, skin creams, eye drops, and also as shots.
Oral corticosteroids are used for treating the severe symptoms produced by an allergic reaction. Their long-term use can cause cataracts, osteoporosis, growth suppression, and muscle weakness. The long-term use of nasal corticosteroid sprays, on the other hand, can cause side effects like nasal irritation and nosebleeds.
Inhaled corticosteroids like triamcinolone, flunisolide, fluticasone, and budesonide are used for treating asthma. Their long-term use can sometimes cause cough, hoarseness, headaches, and infections of the mouth. For skin allergies, corticosteroid creams are used, which include hydrocortisone and triamcinolone. They can cause skin irritation and discoloration in some users.
Bronchodilators are basically used for relieving asthma symptoms. These drugs relax and dilate the bronchial passageway to improve breathing. They also help clear mucus from the lungs, and relieve wheezing and chest tightness associated with asthma. Some common types of bronchodilators are, ventolin, xopenex, and maxair.
Mast Cell Stabilizers
Mast cell stabilizers are the prescription medications used for reducing mild to moderate inflammation of the bronchial tubes. They can be used for relieving symptoms like red and itchy eyes, and also for preventing the development of asthma symptoms while exercising. Mast cell stabilizers are available in the form of inhalers, nasal sprays, and eye drops. Inhalers are generally used for treating asthma symptoms.
These are the medications employed for treating the symptoms of a nasal allergy and asthma. These prescription medications come in the form of pills, tablets, chewables, and granules. Some of the common medications of this category are, Singulair, Accolate, and Zyflo.
Allergy Medication During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Pregnant and nursing women are usually advised to avoid certain medications. Medications are usually classified into five categories, known as category A, B, C, D, and X, depending on the risks they pose to the developing fetus. The effects of the drugs that fall into the category A, have been studied in pregnant women, and are largely considered safe to be used during pregnancy.
Category B medications are those which have been found to cause no serious side effects in pregnant animals, but no human studies are available to evaluate their safety in pregnant women. The medications that fall into the category C may cause adverse effects on the fetus in pregnant animals, while those that come under the pregnancy category D, have been found to pose health risks to the fetus. On the other hand, drugs that fall into the category X can cause birth defects in animals or humans, as per the scientific evidence available in this regard.
Pregnant women are usually advised to stay away from any kind of medications during the first trimester. However, loratadine or Claritin, and Chlorpheniramine come under the category B, and hence can be used by pregnant women, but only with the prior approval of their physicians. Other allergy medications that may be used by pregnant women are, Cromolyn nasal spray, cetirizine, Xyzal, and Pseudoephedrine.
Like pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers should also avoid certain medications. Fexofenadine or Allegra is the more commonly used allergy medication while breastfeeding. Nursing mothers can also use loratadine at times. However, be sure to talk to your physician before taking any kind of allergy medications.
Allergy Medication for Kids
Young children and toddlers should be given medications only after consulting their health care provider. In general, the medication that is commonly used for toddlers is Zyrtec. Allegra and Claritin can also be used for treating allergies in kids. Claritin is approved for children over 2 years of age, while Zyrtec can be used for children over the age of 6 months.
Clarinex is another drug that can be used for children over the age of 6 months. Singulair can be used for treating asthma symptoms in kids. The granular form of the medicine can be given to children older than 6 months of age, while the chewable tablets are approved for children above 4 years of age. Allegra is available as an oral suspension, which can be used for children between the ages of 2 to 11 years.
Before using any kind of allergy medications, please talk to your physician. This is particularly applicable for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be replaced for the advice of a medical professional.