Maybe you’re tired of the itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing that you experience every spring or every time you’re near your neighbor’s cat. You want relief from these allergy symptoms, but you’re not sure what your options are. Understanding your options can help you work with your doctor to design an allergy treatment program.
In general, avoiding the substances (allergens) you’re allergic to is the first and simplest form of treatment. This is true whether you have allergic rhinitis - allergies to allergens such as mold, pollen and pet dander - or allergies to specific foods or drugs.
Some of the medications used to treat respiratory allergy symptoms include antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays and eyedrops. When avoiding allergens isn’t enough to control your symptoms, your doctor may suggest medications as a second approach
What do medications do?
If you have allergic rhinitis and avoidance doesn’t work to reduce your symptoms, your doctor may suggest medications, such as antihistamines.
If neither of these strategies reduces your allergic rhinitis symptoms, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy shots - injections of the allergen(s) you’re allergic to - to desensitize you to the allergen(s) over time.
Avoiding allergens: The first step toward controlling allergies
Taking steps to avoid exposure to the substances you’re allergic to can be the simplest strategy for controlling your allergies. Depending on what you’re allergic to, this strategy may vary.
If you’re allergic to dust mites, pollen, mold or pet dander, you can reduce your exposure to these substances by making a few changes in your home and lifestyle.
For example, if you’re allergic to dust mites or mold:
- Maintain a humidity level of 50 percent or less in your home.
- Use an air conditioner in the summer.
- Cover your mattress, box spring and pillows with plastic or allergen-proof covers.
- Remove carpeting.
- Use nonupholstered furniture and washable draperies.
If you’re allergic to pollen:
- Stay indoors when pollen counts are high.
- Keep the windows in your home and car closed.
If you’re allergic to pet dander or cigarette smoke:
- Keep pets outside.
- Institute a “No smoking” policy in your home.
- Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke, for instance, by dining in the “no-smoking” section of restaurants.
If you have food allergy, avoiding the food(s) to which you’re allergic is the only strategy for controlling your allergy. If you don’t avoid those foods, you could experience a life-threatening response known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis causes your airways to constrict and blood pressure to drop dramatically, causing lightheadedness, difficulty breathing and even unconsciousness or death.
What do medications do?
When avoiding allergens isn’t enough to control your symptoms, your doctor may suggest medications as a second approach. Medications, however, are ineffective for controlling symptoms caused by food and drug allergies.
Medications commonly used to treat allergic rhinitis are:
- Antihistamines. These drugs - available over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription as pills, nasal sprays and eyedrops - work by blocking the action of histamine, an inflammatory substance released when your immune system encounters an allergen. Antihistamines help relieve or prevent the sneezing, itchy eyes and throat, and postnasal drip that histamine may cause. Typically, they’re not as effective for a stuffy nose. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness and dry mouth. # Antihistamines: One form of allergy relief
- Decongestants. These medications - available OTC and by prescription - help reduce congestion in your nasal membranes by constricting the blood vessels that supply those membranes. Generally taken as a liquid, pill or nasal spray, they may be used in conjunction with an antihistamine or alone to treat nasal swelling related to allergies. Decongestants can cause anxiety, sleeping problems and increased blood pressure. Prolonged use of decongestant nasal sprays can cause a rebound condition in which the nasal membrane swells, resulting in severe nasal obstruction.
- Anti-inflammatory medications. For more troublesome symptoms, these drugs, such as cromolyn and corticosteroids - available OTC and by prescription, and generally taken as a nasal spray - can help you breathe better. They reduce inflammation of the airways, nasal congestion and sneezing. Some people find cromolyn only modestly effective, and corticosteroids can irritate your nasal passages.
f you have a food allergy and are at risk of experiencing anaphylactic shock, which requires emergency medical treatment, your doctor may suggest you carry an injectable dose of epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine can help slow the reaction while you wait for further treatment. You may be able to administer the drug by yourself, after being taught how to use a self-injecting syringe and needle. A friend, family member or medical professional called in response to a severe anaphylactic reaction also may administer the medication.
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD