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'Tis the season for wheezin' -- How to choose the best allergy meds for your symptoms

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – April 8, 2013 -- Sneezes and sniffles, hives and itchy eyes: allergies feel like a miserable cold that just won’t go away. These symptoms often send sufferers searching for relief. But with so many types of allergy medication available, how do you know which one is right for you? 

The first step, according to Dr. Robin Tagatz, Pharm.D., pharmacist with Saint Thomas Hospital Pharmacy, is to understand what causes allergies.

“Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a substance in your environment, such as pollen, dust and mold. Usually, these substances are harmless, but they don’t feel that way when your body goes on the defense,” Dr. Tagatz said. “For some allergies, you can get relief by avoiding contact with the allergen. If avoiding the allergen isn’t possible – for example, if you’re allergic to pollen and it’s spring in Tennessee – medication may help control your symptoms.” 

Next, it’s important to know that antihistamines, nasal steroids, and antileukotriene medications are the most common types of allergy medication. All three treat allergy symptoms in different ways:  

  • Antihistamines block histamine, one of the chemicals responsible for allergy symptoms. Three common brands— Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec—are available generically and available over-the-counter which makes them convenient. Antihistamines are very effective for eye allergies. As with any medication, some people may experience side effects.  
  • Nasal steroids require a prescription, unlike antihistamines. They tend to be the most effective treatment for allergies that affect the nose, but some allergy sufferers dislike using a nasal spray, preferring to take medication orally.   
  • Antileukotriene medications, which block another chemical called leukotriene, are approved to treat allergies and asthma. The most common brand, Singulair, is an oral tablet and is available generically. Many doctors prescribe antileukotriene medications in conjunction with another medication, such as an antihistamine.   

The last step is to choose a medication that fits your symptoms. For occasional allergy sufferers, taking an over-the-counter antihistamine a few hours before allergen exposure may bring relief. Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec are all effective options for most adults; importantly, Allegra is not recommended for pregnant women. If you are pregnant you should check with your doctor before taking any medications. 

But for chronic allergy sufferers, an over-the-counter medication may not be enough, in which case Dr. Tagatz recommends visiting a doctor. 

“If you’re experiencing severe or chronic symptoms, see a doctor. You may need a combination of medicines, such as an antihistamine and a nasal steroid. If medication isn’t helping, your doctor might recommend another treatment option – allergy shots, for example, can desensitize you to the allergen itself, instead of just treating symptoms. Or, you could have an underlying condition that needs attention, such as asthma,” he said.  

For more information, or to find a physician, please visit www.stthomas.org.  


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