Spring is here! Allergy therapy update, 2016
© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD
Ah, spring. The birds are tweeting, the flowers are blooming… and there’s a layer of yellow dust all over my car. And a whole lot of sneezing and stuffy noses! Fortunately, there are some great medicines out there to help reduce the symptoms of spring allergies, and most of them are inexpensive and over-the-counter. So many choices! Here’s an updated guide to help you pick the medicines that are best to relieve your family’s suffering.
But first: before medications, remember non-medical approaches. People with allergies should shower and wash hair after being outside (though it’s not practical or good to just stay inside all spring!) You can also use nasal saline washes to help reduce pollen exposures.
Antihistamines are still very effective for sneezing, drippy noses, and itchy noses and eyes. The old standard is Benadryl (diphenhydramine), which works well—but it’s sedating and only lasts six hours. It’s better to use a more-modern, less-sedating antihistamine like Zyrtec (cetirizine), Claritin (loratidine), or Allergra (fexofenidine.) All of these are OTC and have cheapo generics. They work taken as-needed, or can be taken every day. Antihistamines don’t relieve congested or stuffy noses—for those symptoms, a nasal steroid spray (see below) is far superior.
There are a just a few differences between the modern, OTC antihistamines. All are FDA approved down to age 2, though we sometimes use them in younger children. They all come in syrups, pills, or melty-tabs. Zyrtec is the most sedating of the three (though far less than Benadryl). Zyrtec and Claritin are once a day, while Allegra, for children, has to be taken twice a day.
Decongestants work, too, but only for a few days—they will lose their punch quickly if taken regularly. Still, for use here and there on the worst days, they can help. The best of the bunch is old-fashioned pseudoephedrine (often sold as generics or brand-name Sudafed), available OTC but hidden behind the counter. Don’t buy the OTC stuff on the shelf (phenylephrine), which isn’t absorbed well. Ask the pharmacist to give you the good stuff hidden in back.
Nasal Steroid Sprays include OTCs Nasacort, Flonase, Rhinocort, and generic fluticasone (essentially identical to Flonase.) There are also many prescription versions of these, like Nasonex and Veramyst. All of these are essentially the same. They all work really well, especially for congestion or stuffiness (which antihistamines do not treat.) They can be used as needed, but work even better if used regularly every single day for allergy season.
Some minor distinctions: Nasacort is approved down to age 2, Flonase to 4, and Rhinocort to 6, though there’s no reason to think any are more or less safe for children. Flonase is scented (kind of an odd, flowery scent, which seems weird in an allergy medicine), and seems to be a little more burny to some people than the others.
Nasal oxymetazolone (brands like Afrin) are best avoided. Sure, they work—they actually work great—but after just a few days your nose will become addicted, and you’ll need more frequent squirts to get through the day. Just say no. Steroid nasal sprays, ironically, are much safer than OTC Afrin.
Eye allergy medications include the oral antihistamines, above; and the topical steroids can help with eye symptoms, too. But if you really want to help allergic eyes, go with an eye drop. The best of the OTCs is Zaditor.
Bottom line: for mild eye or nose symptoms, a simple oral antihistamine is probably the best first line. For more severe symptoms OR symptoms dominated by clogging and stuffiness, use a steroid nasal spray. You can also use both, in combination, an antihistamine PLUS a steroid spray, for really problematic symptoms. Anything not improving on that combo needs to see a doctor.