Allergy Medications Explained
by Dr. Christopher Chang, last modified on
Anti-Histamines • Steroid Nasal Sprays • Anti-Histamine Nasal Sprays • Dymista • Singulair • Saline Flushes
Vitamin D • Nasal Decongestants • Mucinex • Cromolyn Nasal Spray •Taking More than One Medication
Although there are surgical procedures to help reduce some of the symptoms of allergies such as turbinate reduction and Rhinaer, the mainstay of allergy symptom treatment is medications whether pills or nasal sprays. For more information on PEDIATRIC specific allergy medications, click here. If you are wondering WHAT allergy medications should be taken for specific allergy symptoms, click here for more information.
There is plenty of information on the internet on the science of how allergy medications work as well as all the different types of medications available. The purpose of this webpage is to explain how allergy medications work in layperson terms without going too much into the science.
Not mentioned on this webpage is the use of acupuncture or acupressure to help with allergy symptoms. Click here to read more about this method of treatment. In order to learn what steps you can take to improve the air quality in your home in order to minimize allergy symptoms and the need for medications, click here. Information regarding allergy shots can be found here.
ANALOGY: The scientific analogy I will use in this webpage is a water balloon and will be contained inside a box like this. The water balloon is analogous to the mast cell which is responsible for allergic reactions. To prevent an allergic reaction, you do NOT want the water inside the balloon from getting out. The water is the chemicals that causes a person to sneeze, have a runny nose, etc. You can also watch a video explaining the difference between allergy medications here.
Anti-histamines in essence blocks the pollen or other allergic substances from causing an allergic reaction (watch video). Such anti-histamines include allegra, zyrtec, claritin, benadryl, xyzal, etc. Pretty much common knowledge there... BUT...
Some people also report that antihistamines make them jittery or have trouble falling sleep. This side effect is almost ALWAYS due to the "-D" or sudafed component of the anti-histamine. If you find this side effect a problem, check to see if you have taken an anti-histamine that also contains sudafed. If so, try a plain anti-histamine without the sudafed or decongestant component. OR, be sure to take it only in the morning and make sure you get the 12-hour tablets instead of the 24-hour tablets.
ANALOGY: Anti-histamines prevent a needle from popping a water balloon. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Steroid Nasal Sprays:
Steroid nasal sprays (available only by prescription except for Rhinocort, Nasacort, Flonase, Nasonex, and Veramyst (rebranded as Sensimist) are differentiated into two different delivery forms: powder and liquid. Liquid nasal sprays include flonase, omnaris, nasacort AQ, rhinocort AQ, veramyst, nasonex, etc. Powder nasal sprays include zetonna and qnasl.
Regardless of the type, steroid nasal sprays work by decreasing the overall reactivity of your nose to pollen and other materials you are allergic to. It works best when used in a preventative manner and as such, should be used DAILY whether you are having symptoms or not. It does not work quite as well when used only when you are having problems.
ALSO, it is very important to understand that it takes daily use for about 2 weeks before it starts working, though some people may find symptom improvement after only a few days. If the sprays are used for eustachian tube dysfunction, it may take up to 4-6 weeks. Also, the sprays are used differently for eustachian tube dysfunction than when used for sinus issues.
Another area of concern for patients is the fact that it is a "steroid." The good news is that nasal steroids do NOT have the bad side effects one hears about in the news. In fact, they are so safe they can be used daily for years, even from the age of 2 years (watch video of kids using allergy nasal sprays). Also, they are NOT addictive unlike OTC nasal decongestant sprays (afrin, zicam, etc) which should not be used for more than 4 days.
ANALOGY: Steroid nasal sprays decrease the number of water balloons and makes them smaller. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Astelin, Astepro, and Patanase (Anti-Histamine Nasal Spray):
These are the only anti-histamine nasal sprays out on the market. Astepro is the only over-the-counter version. There's really not much difference (I believe) among these sprays other than the smell and aftertaste.
ANALOGY: Anti-histamines prevent a needle from popping a water balloon. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Dymista (Anti-Histamine & Steroid Combo Nasal Spray):
Dymista is the only nasal spray that contains both an anti-histamine and a steroid. Based on the active ingredients, it essentially is flonase (steroid nasal spray) and astelin (anti-histamine) nasal sprays merged into one.
ANALOGY: Anti-histamines prevent a needle from popping a water balloon. Steroid nasal sprays decrease the number of water balloons and makes them smaller. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Singulair (Leukotriene Inhibitor):
Singulair is a unique medication that works by preventing the overall production of chemicals that leads to allergy symptoms whereas anti-histamines tries to prevent the release of those same chemicals. There is no other medication like singulair for allergies and is in a class of its own. Although some patients may find benefit with this medication alone, for the majority, it works best when taken with an anti-histamine. Zyflo and Accolate are other leukotriene inhibitor medications mainly for asthma.
ANALOGY: Singulair prevents water from being made inside a water balloon. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Saline flushes, quite simply, is giving your sino-nasal passages a good shower... just like taking a shower or bath to keep your body clean. By regularly performing saline flushes, it prevents pollen and other irritating allergens from settling in your nose and causing problems. Many patients have found that by performing saline flushes, their need for medications decreases if not altogether stops. Watch a video to see how sinus rinses are performed.
It is recommended to perform saline flushes with the Neilmed Sinus Rinse kit at least twice a day. It can be performed up to 4 times a day if you are suffering from a sinus infection or allergies. Generally speaking, kids from the age of 5 years old can perform without difficulty. Kids younger than 5 years of age should use a saline nasal spray followed by bulb suctioning. Sinus irrigation devices also exist for greater ease, but are much more expensive.
ANALOGY: Saline flushes removes anything from the environment that may cause a water balloon to pop. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Vitamin D has been found to help treat as well as prevent allergies by making the cells that produce allergy less active. Typically, the recommended doses are Vitamin D3 2000U daily for adults and 1000U daily for children.
ANALOGY: Taking Vitamin D is like decreasing the production of balloons by a balloon factory. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
There are 2 different types of nasal decongestants... nasal spray (Afrin, Zicam, etc) and pill (sudafed) formulations. These medications alleviate the symptom of the "runny nose" and are NOT specific to allergies only, but also colds and other viral illnesses that cause a nose to run. In essence, nasal decongestants work by causing the blood vessels that go to the sino-nasal mucosal lining of your nose to squeeze shut... in essence, a chemical "tourniquet" is placed. When this happens, the reduced blood flow to your nose reduces the swelling and the drippiness of the nose.
That's why some people's blood pressure increases when taking this medication! The heart is trying to pump the same volume of blood, but through smaller blood vessels resulting in increased blood pressure.
Another potential harmful side effect and even addiction occurs with nasal spray decongestants (not with pills like sudafed). This "addiction" is called rhinitis medicamentosa which is a medication rebound phenomenon. If nasal spray decongestants are used daily for more than 5 days, one slowly becomes dependent on this medication in order to breath through the nose. Why? Well, remember that nasal decongestants places a "tourniquet" on the blood vessels going to the nose. Over time, the lining of your nose becomes starved for food and oxygen which only blood can provide, so when the decongestant wears off, the cells are screaming for blood and the vessels respond by becoming quite enlarged. Unfortunately, this causes your nose to become VERY stuffy... leading one to use the spray again... and again... and again. Once this happens, it becomes very difficult to stop using the spray and with any addiction, quitting is a very uncomfortable process complete with withdrawal affects. See your doctor for help if this happens to you.
In the end, our recommendations to patients are NOT to take any nasal decongestants unless the nose is dripping excessively. OR, if you do use, to try to avoid taking daily for a prolonged period of time, especially decongestant nasal sprays (no more than 4 days).
ANALOGY: Decongestants is damage control after a water balloon has already popped. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Mucinex (also known as Robitussin or guaifenesin) does not help with allergies directly. All mucinex does is thin out secretions so it is easier to cough/spit up. It basically makes thick, sticky secretions less so. That's it. Nothing more. It does NOT work if not taken with plenty of water, so remember to drink a large glass of water with this medication. Often, mucinex is combined with sudafed (ie, Mucinex-D) which is a nasal decongestant and people often erroneously attribute symptom improvement to the mucinex when in actuality, it may be the nasal decongestant ingredient of the medication. LOOK at the list of ingredients if you are not sure! For more information on mucinex (appropriate and inappropriate uses), click here.
ANALOGY: Mucinex is damage control after a water balloon has already popped. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Cromolyn Nasal Spray: (NasalCrom)
Cromolyn nasal spray known over-the-counter (no presciption needed) as NasalCrom is a mast cell stabilizer. What this means is that it does what an anti-histamine does, but by a different method. An anti-histamine prevents the stuff a person is allergic to from attaching to a mast cell causing it to rupture. A mast cell is the culprit cell that causes an allergic reaction. NasalCrom stabilizes the mast cell's membrane to point that it will not rupture, even if it is supposed to.
The downside of this medication is that it works best when given 30 minutes BEFORE a person gets exposed to their allergies.
ANALOGY: Cromolyn nasal spray makes the water balloon's skin tougher so it is harder to pop in the first place. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Can I Take More than One Medication?
YES! In fact, for many patients with particularly bad allergies, they do need to take an anti-histamine, steroid nasal spray, singulair, astelin, and perform saline flushes to keep their symptoms under control. These medications work synergistically and do not interfere with each other. The best way to think about taking all these medications is by comparing it to the military.
- Astelin is the air force.
- Singulair is the navy.
- Steroid nasal spray is the marines.
- Anti-histamines is the army.
- Saline flushes are the factories that produce military hardware.
ANALOGY: These meds work synergistically to prevent a water balloon from popping. NasalCrom makes the water balloon's skin thicker so it is harder to pop. Anti-histamines prevent a needle from touching the balloon's surface. Singulair decreases the amount of water inside a water balloon. Steroid nasal sprays decreases the number of water balloons present. Saline flushes cleans the environment of anything that might pop a balloon. Explanation of the analogy provided here.
Though they each try to get your symptoms under control, they do it by different mechanisms which when taken altogether, can work even better than by itself.
So, using the table below, a patient can generally take one medication from each column at the same time (but not more than one medication contained within a column unless directed by your doctor). For example (highlighted in
Steroid Nasal Spray
Anti-Histamine Nasal Spray
Cromolyn Nasal Spray
Not sure what multiple types of allergy medications should be taken for your specific symptoms? Check out this webpage that tries to come up with the right combinaton for you!
Indeed, it is not fun to take medications daily, and for those individuals, allergy testing followed by receiving allergy shots or drops may offer relief by building up your body's tolerance to the point that your allergies may be "cured". At the very least, one's dependence on allergy medications may drastically decrease.
Allergy treatment would not be complete without discussing new devices on the market that help relieve congestion and sinus discomfort without any medications achieved via microelectric stimulation to strategic points along the sinus passages. Called ClearUp, it is a Class 2 FDA approved device one can purchase OTC. ClearUp works by gliding the device along designated areas of the cheek, nose and brow bone for about 5 minutes on both sides of the face. Around 75% of patients report symptom relief that can last up to 6 hours.
Finally, there is a surgical option that can diminish (but not cure) allergy symptoms called Rhinaer.
Check out our online store on allergy products here.
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