There are currently only a handful of what are considered second-generation antihistamines. These are drugs that can prevent allergy symptoms while NOT causing the drowsiness that most of the first-generation antihistamines brought on.
The original second-generation drugs included Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. Though all are similar in action and scope, each one has been approved for slightly different uses by the FDA. A couple of years ago, Claritin’s patent expired and it went both generic AND over the counter.
There are now any number of different brand name versions of the drug originally marketed under the Claritin brand. The FDA also approved over the counter use of Claritin, which means you can buy it at any pharmacy counter without a doctor’s prescription. Many drugs originally sold only by prescription have gone over the counter (OTC) during the last decade or so.
The reason for this loosening of the medication regulations is that the drugs approved for OTC use are judged safe enough for the layperson to decide on dosing and appropriateness. This is certainly a boon for people who do not want to be under a doctor’s care for mild ailments or who do not have a doctor or can’t afford one.
The downside, in my opinion, is that it gives health insurance companies an incentive to force a switch to an OTC drug, since they don’t have to pay for it. When I still had health insurance, my company tried to force me to switch to Claritin as soon as it went OTC, even though I’d been taking Allegra for years.
Allegra and Zyrtec, though similar to Claritin, did not go OTC at the same time because they were introduced later. However, the FDA recently announced that they had approved Zyrtec for nonprescription (OTC) use.
Zyrtec can be used not only to treat typical nasal allergy symptoms, but also for the itching associated with hives.
So, if you’re looking for an OTC alternative to Claritin and its generic cousins, you might try Zyrtec, particularly if you have itching and/or hives in reaction to exposure to your allergy triggers.
In my opinion, treating allergies is very much a trial and error process. What works well for one person may be completely different for the next. So, if you’re not happy with your current allergy medicine, it’s always worth looking into your alternatives. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you’re not sure which way to go.
Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she’s been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.