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Allergy Medicines: Over-the-Counter

Man reading box of over-the-counter medication.You can buy many allergy medicines over the counter (OTC) without a prescription. It's important to remember:

  • You may use the OTC medicine alone or with prescription medicine.

  • Always use all medicines exactly as instructed.

  • If you take prescription medicines, check with your pharmacist about possible medicine interactions before taking OTC medicines.

  • If you have any questions about your allergy medicine, ask your healthcare provider or your pharmacist.

There are many OTC allergy medicines including antihistamines, decongestants, and steroid nasal sprays. And there are combination products. For example, a pill with both an antihistamine and a decongestant. You may also be advised to take more than one medicine. For example, a steroid nasal spray and an antihistamine pill.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines block the response to histamine. Histamine is the substance released by your body that causes many allergy symptoms. Antihistamines help reduce sneezing, itching, and runny noses. 

These medicines:

  • Are available over the counter as pills or liquids

  • May cause you to be sleepy

  • Should be taken as directed

  • Don't work well at easing nasal congestion

Decongestants

Decongestants reduce swelling of the nasal passages. They ease pressure and pain in your sinuses.

Things to know about these medicines:

  • Decongestants are available as pills, liquids, and nasal sprays.

  • Decongestant nasal spray should not be used for more than a few days. Overuse can actually make your symptoms worse by causing a rebound effect. This can make some people feel that they have a cold that just won't go away.

  • Decongestant pills are now kept behind the counter. You don't need a prescription for these medicines. But you must ask the pharmacist for them.

  • Decongestant pills should not be used by people with high blood pressure. If you take high blood pressure medicines, ask your healthcare provider how to treat congestion.

Steroid nasal sprays

Steroid nasal sprays are used for nasal allergy symptoms. They help to reduce nasal congestion and swelling, runny noses, and sneezing.

Steroid nasal sprays:

  • Shouldn't be used without your healthcare provider's advice

  • Can cause side effects, such as nasal bleeding

  • Should be sprayed into the nose correctly

  • May take up to 2 weeks to be fully effective. Daily use of these medicines often leads to the best results. Follow the instructions for how long to use the medicine.

Always read and follow the instructions on the label. If you have any questions about these medicines, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Deborah Pedersen MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2016
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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