More than 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from allergies, so it’s no surprise that drugstores are bursting with antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays, especially at this time of year. All three remedies have a place when other measures fail—but the trick is knowing what to reach for first and how to use it for maximum effectiveness.
Anne Lent, M.D., an allergy specialist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, advises her patients to try a saline nasal wash and then follow it up with a prescription nasal spray to decrease inflammation in the nose.
While antihistamine nasal spray doesn’t relieve congestion, Lent notes that it does relieve itchy and watery eyes, a scratchy throat, and sneezing. But it’s important to watch for side effects: Older antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can cause drowsiness, while newer drugs, such as Claritin, are less sedating but can cause dry mouth, fatigue, and headaches. “The best thing about antihistamines is that people who use them get quick relief,” explains Lent.
Medicated over-the-counter nasal sprays, like Afrin, are good at quickly decreasing congestion by squeezing blood vessels in the lining of the nose. But experts advise against using any nasal spray for more than three consecutive days: Over time the nose becomes less responsive, which can lead to addictive overuse of the product in an attempt to clear nasal passages.