Allergies themselves are not serious. However, infections—such as a sinus infection characterized by fever, pain, and green or yellow nasal discharge—can mimic allergies.
Over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications may ease your discomfort. Antihistamines can stop the itching and sneezing caused by the release of histamine that the body produces in response to allergens. Antihistamines block the action of histamine. There are many over-the-counter varieties, including diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and clemastine (Tavist).
Although OTC antihistamines are effective in minimizing hay fever symptoms, they can cause extreme drowsiness. In fact, some people use antihistamines as a sleeping aid. Dry mouth is another common side effect. Less common are confusion and blurred vision. Over-the-counter antihistamines all have warning labels urging users not to operate heavy machinery or drive while taking the medication. Pilots are prohibited from using an OTC antihistamine. Some people are able to will themselves to stay awake and remain semi-functional, but do not be fooled by a false sense of well-being. Even if you think you are alert, your coordination and reaction skills are still impaired while on OTC allergy medication.
A nasal decongestant such as pseudoephedrine may help relieve a stuffy nose due to allergies. This medication constricts the blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the nasal passages, which reduces swelling. Insomnia, restlessness, and difficulty urinating are among the possible side effects. For some people, however, a simple nasal decongestant is not effective because it will not stop sneezing and a runny nose. The pollen will relentlessly trigger the release of histamines, and a nasal decongestant, depending on the severity of the allergies, may not be able to combat the force of the body's reaction.
A commonly used nasal decongestant, phenylpropanolamine (PPA), was pulled off the shelves after the FDA issued a warning on its possible side effects. Research has linked PPA (a common ingredient in both cold medicines and appetite suppressants) to a slight increase in stroke risk in women. Occasional reports of hemorrhagic stroke (a type of stroke that causes bleeding in the brain) in people using PPA-containing products prompted a careful look at the drug. The studies found that people taking PPA were more likely to have strokes than those not taking PPA. Although the risk of stroke was very low, the FDA recommends that you not use any products that contain PPA because of the seriousness of a stroke and the inability to predict who will be affected. The risk was found primarily in women, though the FDA notes that men may be affected as well.
Your doctor is the best source of information on the drug treatment choices available to you.
Consider allergy shots if you suffer from allergies for many months of the year, cannot tolerate allergy medications, or develop asthma during pollen season. A series of injections can make you less sensitive to the effects of pollen by helping your immune system become increasingly resistant to it. "Immunotherapy" involves injecting small amounts of the specific allergen you are allergic to and gradually increasing the dose so that you develop a tolerance to it. To be effective, injections must be given a regular basis (determined by your allergist) over the course of three to five years.
Some alternative remedies may be helpful in minimizing allergy symptoms. However none of these remedies have been shown to be effective in carefully controlled studies. The herb ephedra (ma-huang) contains ephedrine, a naturally occurring compound that has been employed by pharmaceutical companies in numerous allergy medications. The FDA has banned sales of the herb because it can be dangerous and has been associated with heart attacks and strokes. Do not take ephedra with allergy medications that contain ephedrine as doubling the dose may cause dangerous side effects.
Nettle is a folk remedy for the sneezing, itching, and swelling associated with allergies. The plant contains quercetin, a substance that has been shown to inhibit the release of histamine. In one study of allergy sufferers, more than half of those who took nettle reported that the herb was at least moderately effective in reducing allergy symptoms compared with a placebo. Nettle is considered to be very safe.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should speak with their doctors before using allergy medications. Some drugs are not safe to use during pregnancy; others can be passed through breast milk and should be avoided by nursing mothers. Dosages are different for adults than they are for children. Follow your doctor's instructions.
Do not use an antihistamine that causes drowsiness before doing activities that require alertness, such as driving, operating machinery, or piloting a plane. OTC and older prescription antihistamines can delay reaction time and interfere with concentration.
Allergies may be controlled with OTC medications. Should these fail to bring you relief, see your doctor about switching medications or beginning allergen immunotherapy.
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