The best treatment for any allergy is avoidance: Whenever possible, distance yourself from the allergen. Unfortunately, though, many allergens are widespread and difficult to dodge. Pollen can travel great distances. Dust is everywhere. Pet dander can make its way into your home or workplace on other people’s clothes. A food you think is “safe” may contain traces of a food to which you are allergic.
Avoidance often isn’t enough to provide allergy relief; antihistamines or other allergy medications may be necessary. In some cases, a severe allergic reaction can cause anaphylactic shock, which requires emergency medical treatment with epinephrine.
Antihistamines and Allergy Medications
Fortunately, life-threatening allergic reactions are rare: Most people have milder symptoms that can be treated with antihistamines. An antihistamine blocks the body’s production of histamine. In doing so, an antihistamine can relieve nasal congestion, sneezing, hives and gastrointestinal symptoms associated with allergies. Antihistamines are available in tablet form, either with or without a prescription; they are also available in syrup form for children and as nasal sprays.
Oral Antihitamines: Oral antihistamines provide relief from allergy symptoms by counteracting the effects of histamine. Oral antihistamines work well, but tend to make people drowsy. More recent drugs, such as Claritin®, Clarinex® and Allegra®, tend to cause less drowsiness than older antihistamines. Headaches, dry mouth and nose, dizziness and stomach problems are possible side effects. Clarinex has been known to occasionally cause painful menstruation. Claritin is available in both tablet and syrup form, and is now available without a prescription.
Diphenhydramine: For mild hay fever symptoms, over-the-counter decongestants that contain diphenhydramine can work as well as prescription drugs. Decongestants can be found in both nasal spray and tablet form. A decongestant nasal spray provides quick relief, but extended use of a medicated nasal spray can actually worsen nasal congestion.
Some prescription drugs, such as Allegra D are an antihistamine/decongestant combination.
Albuterol: Fast-Acting Bronchodilator
Antihistamine medication isn’t your only treatment option. Emergency bronchodilators can be used to reduce symptoms once an allergy attack has started, and topical creams sooth skin conditions caused by allergies. Consult your doctor for the medications best suited to you.
Albuterol is a common fast-acting allergy medication. Albuterol is part of the family of drugs known as bronchodilators — medications that relax and open respiratory airways. Like many bronchodilators, albuterol is available in an inhaler. The inhaler can be used to treat allergic reactions as they occur. Many allergy sufferers experience asthma symptoms during exercise, so they use their inhaler a few minutes before starting to exercise.
Not all inhalers provide fast-acting relief. Some inhaled medications are taken on a regular basis to help prevent attacks from occurring. They are not designed to relieve an allergic reaction in progress. You may be prescribed more than one inhaler. Follow dosing instructions carefully: Overuse of bronchodilators can worsen some existing medical conditions, most notably heart conditions.
Calamine Lotion: Relief for Minor Skin Rashes
If you suffer from the itching that so often accompanies insect bites, calamine lotion can help. Calamine lotion can also provide temporary relief from rashes caused by poison ivy and other irritants. It is less effective for treating severe skin symptoms.
Nasal Sprays: Nasonex, Flonase and NasalCrom
Nasal steroids are among the most effective forms of nasal allergy relief. Sprayed or inhaled once or twice a day, nasal steroids, such as Nasonex® and Flonase®, reduce the inflammation caused by histamine. It takes several days before the full effects of a steroid medication are felt.
Side effects of nasal steroids vary. A stinging sensation in the nose is not uncommon. More serious side effects can result from prolonged use of steroids. They include cataracts, osteoporosis, and growth suppression in children. The frequency of these side effects is not as common as health professionals previously believed, and many people use steroids to control their allergies quite safely.
If you cannot take steroids, other anti-inflammatory sprays are available, including NasalCrom®, which contains cromolyn sodium. Like nasal steroids, they reduce inflammation, but have to be used much more often: up to four doses a day may be necessary.
Itching, redness and discomfort in the eyes can be soothed with eye drops. Eye drops have few side effects, although some over-the-counter eye drops can cause irritation if used for long periods of time. Eye drops can be very effective for short-term relief. Some people chill eye drops before using them to gain extra relief from the cool liquid.
Allergy Shots and Immunotherapy
Hay fever and stinging insect allergies can often be treated with allergy shots. Small amounts of the allergen are injected into the body. Over time, the allergy shots increase in potency, and the body’s immune system builds up a resistance to the allergen. The process is known as immunotherapy. Immunotherapy takes time: If you’re considering allergy shots, you may require monthly injections for three to five years.
Allergic Asthma Medication
Singulair® is an asthma medication that is available in tablet and chewable tablet forms. It has a proven record of controlling asthma by reducing inflammation, and many people find it helps control allergic reactions. Singulair must be taken regularly for it to be effective: it cannot be used to treat reactions once they start. Available by prescription, Singulair’s side effects can include headaches, nasal congestion, stomach pain, dizziness and skin rashes.
Anaphylactic Shock and Epinephrine
Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic reaction that can kill if untreated. Upon contact with the allergen, breathing becomes difficult, and blood pressure drops sharply. Shock, loss of consciousness and even death can occur.
If you’re at risk of anaphylactic shock, you will probably be prescribed an adrenaline-based medication called epinephrine. Epinephrine can be self-administered using either a syringe or special injection “pen.” An EpiPen® is an easy-to-use injection system that quickly releases epinephrine into the body. Medical attention should be given immediately, even if epinephrine has been used.
If your doctor has prescribed epinephrine, carry your EpiPen with you at all times. Your doctor will teach you how to use it correctly. It’s a good idea for family and friends to know how to use the EpiPen in case of an emergency.
Anyone with life-threatening allergies should consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace indicating what he or she is allergic to, and what steps to take in the event of an emergency.