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Allergies: When to Treat Yourself, When to See a Doctor

Most allergy sufferers can rely on their symptoms like clockwork. When the pollen count is high, their eyes start to water and their nose starts to run. But do they know when to try over the counter medicine for their symptoms and when to seek stronger treatment?

There are generally two types of over the counter drugs that can help allergy symptoms:

  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants


Antihistamines, such as Benadryl and Claritin, work by fighting the chemicals, like histamines, released during an allergy attack. The latest antihistamines reduce symptoms like itchy eyes and a runny nose without creating more discomfort for users.

The traditional antihistamines have a lot of unwanted side effects: They can make you sleepy, dry your nose and dry your throat. But there is a newer generation that does not do that and some of these can be bought over the counter, such as Claritin (generic name Loratidine) or Zyrtec (Cetirizine).


Decongestants, which also help cold symptoms, shrink the inflamed sinus tissue and allow for easier breathing. Common decongestants include Sudafed pills or Afrin nasal spray.

Though they are effective at alleviating short-term symptoms, decongestants are not meant for long-term use.

After about three or four days of using the nasal spray, your nose starts to get dependent on it and you can get this rebound congestion that can be much worse. If you find you are requiring a decongestant every day and you are taking it for weeks on end, then you should probably see a physician.

Patients with high blood pressure or an enlarged prostate should be wary of using oral decongestants, as they can have specific side effects for those conditions.

Other Treatments

Allergy sufferers also can find antihistamines and decongestants combined into one medication, to fight all the symptoms that come with allergies.

Some sufferers are trying newer treatments, like nasal irrigation, to help a stuffy nose.

Patients with chronic sinus infections often do well with irrigation, which uses a saltwater solution to flush out allergens and irritants from the nasal cavities.

When to See a Physician

But if over the counter drugs and other treatments do not alleviate symptoms, patients should see their doctor to determine a better course of action.

If patients are symptomatic for more than just a couple of weeks during a season and they have tried taking care of themselves and that has not been effective, then certainly they should see a physician. There are effective ways to deal with allergies, so they should see someone and get some help.

In addition to offering a number of prescription treatments, allergists or otolaryngologists can test patients to determine their specific allergies. Armed with that information, patients can work to avoid those irritants. Tests also can determine if a patient would be a good candidate for regular allergy shots.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (9/17/09), a service of the Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

For more information:

Go to the Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders health topic.