UC HEALTH LINE: Allergies—When to Treat Yourself, When to See a Doctor
CINCINNATI – 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?
Allen Seiden, MD, a UC Health otolaryngologist, says there are generally two types of over-the-counter drugs that can help allergy symptoms: antihistamines and decongestants.
Antihistamines, such as Benadryl and Claritin, work by fighting the chemicals, like histamines, released during an allergy attack. Seiden says 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's a newer generation that doesn't do that and some of these can be bought over-the-counter, such as Claritin (generic name Loratidine) or Zyrtec (Cetirizine)," says Seiden.
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're effective at alleviating short-term symptoms, Seiden says decongestants aren't 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," he says. "If you find you are requiring a decongestant every day and you’re 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, says Seiden, as they can have specific side effects for those conditions.
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.
Seiden says 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.
But if over-the-counter drugs and other treatments don't 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've tried taking care of themselves and that has not been effective, then certainly they should see a physician,” says Seiden. "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.
For more information or to schedule an appointment with a UC Health otolaryngologist, call (513) 475-8400.
More information on allergies and sinus issues is available atwww.netwellness.org, a collaborative health-information Web site run by the University of Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve University and Ohio State University and staffed by Ohio physicians (including Seiden), nurses and allied health professionals.