What to Know About OTC Allergy Treatments

April 2024

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you’re all too familiar with the annoying symptoms: congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes. Sure, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to your allergy triggers, but sometimes there’s only so much you can do.

Fortunately, there are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) products that can help you manage the uncomfortable symptoms of seasonal allergies. They’ll also help with the symptoms of any airborne allergens, like pet dander and mold.

Here are some OTC treatments you may want to consider:

Oral antihistamines. When you have allergies, your immune system mistakes benign things like pollen, pet dander, or dust for an invading pathogen. In response, your immune system produces a chemical called histamine. This histamine then binds to your cells, causing allergy symptoms like a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, watery or itchy eyes, hives, and rashes.

Antihistamines work by blocking the histamine receptors on your cells, which helps reduce your allergy symptoms.

There are a variety of OTC antihistamines. If you’ve tried one that doesn’t work well for you, ask your doctor or pharmacist for recommendations of other antihistamines you can try.

Medicated nasal sprays. These are liquid medications that you spray directly into your nose to treat nasal symptoms from allergies.

Medicated nasal spreads can help reduce inflammation, irritation, and congestion in the nasal passages. The advantage of using a nasal spray rather than taking oral medication is that it is delivered exactly to where you need it — your nasal passages. This can also help reduce side effects.

Different types of medicated nasal sprays work in different ways:

Antihistamine sprays work like oral antihistamines — by blocking histamine, which your body produces in response to certain allergens. The only difference is that the medication is delivered locally instead of systemically.

Steroidal sprays help reduce mucus and swelling in your nasal passages. You may need to use a steroidal nasal spray consistently for a couple of weeks to see the benefit.

Cromolyn sodium sprays work by blocking mast cells in the nasal passages. This can help reduce sneezing, congestion, and runny nose from allergies.

Decongestant sprays constrict the blood vessels in the nasal passages, which helps reduce congestion and swelling. While they can be quite effective during a particularly bad allergy flare-up, you should not use them for more than three days as your body can become “addicted” to them. When this happens, you can experience a sharp rebound in congestion when you try to stop using them.

Saline sprays and rinses. Unlike the nasal sprays described above, saline sprays are not medicated sprays but instead systems for essentially washing the inside of your nose. Simply squirt a premade sterile saline solution into each nostril to help rinse allergens and excess mucus out of your nose.

An alternative to a spray is a neti pot, where you make your own fresh saline solution and use it to rinse your nasal cavities by the potful. Neti pots typically come with premeasured salt packets where you mix a measured amount of water and a premeasured packet of salt. You must boil any water you use for a neti pot for at least one minute to kill any pathogens that may be in the water. Then you need to let it cool to room temperature before rinsing your nasal cavities. You can learn more about how to use a neti pot here.

If you have any questions about which OTC allergy treatments might be right for you, talk with your doctor or pharmacist.

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