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Allergy Drugs: Prescription and OTC Medications

Medical Editor:

What are allergies?

Allergies occur when the body's immune system responds to a substance it considers an "invader." Substances that provoke the immune system into an allergic response are known as allergens. There is no such thing as a universal allergen. What might trigger a life-threatening allergic response in one person might cause absolutely no harm in another.

The physiological mechanism of allergic reactions is the same, however, in everyone. Allergens enter the body -- either through ingestion, inhalation or contact with the skin or mucous membranes. This causes white blood cells to release an antibody which then binds to what are known as mast cells. The mast cells rupture – and in the process, release biochemical substances including histamine.

Mild allergy symptoms include itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, scratchy throat and a rash. More severe, life-threatening allergy symptoms include swelling of the throat, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Allergy medication list

How They Work:

Antihistamines used to treat allergy symptoms fall into two broad categories: sedating and non-sedating. The first category includes the older antihistamines. These allergy drugs relieve allergy symptoms but cause drowsiness and other side effects, including dry mouth. Newer antihistamines are said to be non-sedating, although some users may experience drowsiness even from these.

All antihistamines work in the same way: by competing with histamine to prevent or reduce the characteristic signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction: swelling, tearing, itching, and increase in bronchial and other secretions.

In addition to oral dosage forms, antihistamines come as creams, lotions, nasal sprays, and eye drops; the latter to relieve symptoms associated with allergic conjunctivitis.

Other types of allergy drugs include:

Corticosteroids: These come as nasal sprays, topical creams and ointments, tablets, injectables and eye preparations. Corticosteroids work by reducing inflammation.

Mast cell stabilizers: These can help prevent allergic reactions from happening when taken regularly. During an allergic reaction, mast cells release histamine and other substances. Mast cell stabilizers, such as cromolyn sodium, keep these cells intact.

Leukotriene inhibitors: Other substances released during an allergic reaction are leukotrienes, which can aggravate allergic conditions and asthma. Some drugs target leukotriene receptors to reduce allergic symptoms.

Nasal anticholinergics: A runny nose is a common complaint among those with allergic rhinitis. Anticholinergic nasal sprays reduce discharge from the nose, but though they do not relieve a stuffy nose.

Decongestants: These relieve a stuffy nose by constricting blood vessels, which limits the amount of secretions coming from the inner lining of the nose. They are available as nasal sprays, pills, and liquids. They don't relieve other allergy symptoms such as itching and sneezing.

Immunomodulators: These are topical medications used to treat skin allergies. They are often used if other agents are ineffective or intolerable.

Autoinjectable epinephrine: This is used to treat a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which may be caused by severe allergic response to foods, drugs, or insect stings.

Over-the-counter allergy medications

Antihistamines (sedating)

Antihistamines (non-sedating)

Eye Drops: Antihistamine

  • Antazoline/Naphazoline (Vasocon A)
  • Ketotifen fumarate (Zaditor, Alaway, Zyrtec, Claritin Eye and Refresh Eye)
  • Naphazoline/Pheniramine (Naphcon-A, Opcon-A, Visine A)

Eye Drops: Mast cell stabilizer

Nasal Sprays: Decongestants

  • Oxymetazoline (Afrin)

Nasal Spray: Corticosteroid

  • Triamcinolone acetonide (Nasacort)
  • Fluticasone propionate (Flonase)
  • Budesonide (Rhinocort)

Nasal Spray: Mast cell stabilizer

Prescription allergy medication


Eye Drops: Antihistamine

Inhalers: Mast cell stabilizer

  • Cromolyn Sodium (Intal)

Eye Drops: Mast cell stabilizer

Eye Drops: Anti-Inflammatory

Nasal Sprays: Antihistamine

Nasal Sprays: Corticosteroid

Nasal Sprays: Anticholinergic


Leukotriene Inhibitor

Topical Immunomodulators

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/2/2016

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