There are tons of allergy medicines available, both over the counter and by prescription. So, how can you know which one is best?
The answer to this question is not a simple one. First, it will be helpful to explore the main type of medicine used to treat allergies, which is an antihistamine. An antihistamine is a drug that blocks a receptor for histamine. Histamine is a chemical in your body that over-reacts to certain triggers, or allergens, such as pollen, mold, dust mites or pet dander and produces allergy symptoms. These symptoms can include sneezing, nasal stuffiness, sniffling, and itching. So, antihistamines help relieve or prevent those symptoms.
Let's look closer at the different choices you have for allergy medication:
- First-generation antihistamines. These are the original medicines developed to treat allergy symptoms and are available over the counter. These medications are generally effective, but have some bothersome side effects, especially drowsiness, which makes it difficult to take them on a regular basis. Examples are Benadryl and Chlortrimeton.
- Second-generation antihistmines. These medicines don't cause the same level of drowsiness as their predecessors, though some of them can still cause mild sedation in some people. However, they are all highly effective and can be taken on a regular basis with very few side effects. They also come in long-lasting versions, so you only need to take them once a day. Examples are Allegra, Zyrtec, and Claritin. Claritin has been sold over the counter for a couple of years, and also has a number of generic versions (loratidine).
- Leukotriene modifiers. Singulair falls into this category and it is used for both allergies and asthma. It blocks leukotrienes, another body chemical that is involved in the allergic response.
- Homeopathic medicines. This is an alternative treatment for allergies, whereby you take tiny amounts of allergens by mouth to slowly de-sensitize you over time to allergens (it's also known as sublingual immunotherapy).
So, which of these treatments are best for you?
Since the arrival of the second-generation, non-sedating antihistamines a decade or more ago, the first-generation drugs have fallen out of favor. Why take something that causes such bothersome side effects when you can take something just as effective that doesn't? Probably the main reason why anyone would take one of them now is the fact that you can buy them without a doctor's prescription and that they don't usually cost as much.
The jury is still out on whether homeopathic medicines are actually effective, though some people swear by them. They are definitely not proven through reliable research, however.
So, that leaves the second-generation antihistamines as the most common choice for treating allergies today. But among those, which is best? There are studies proving the effectiveness of one over the other in regards to various criteria, including length of action, quickness of action and level of relief. However, most of these studies were sponsored by the drug companies that make the medicines, so you have to look at those results with some caution and skepticism.