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An allergy is a common type of autoimmune condition. Symptoms can range from annoying to life-threatening, but treatments and effective avoidance strategies can help.

Allergies result from an overreaction of the immune system. The immune system protects the body from invaders such as viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. If a person has an allergy, their immune system reacts to a harmless substance as though it was harmful.

A material that causes the immune system to overreact is called an “allergen.” Common allergens include:

  • dust
  • pollen
  • pet dander
  • certain foods, such as eggs and nuts
  • bee venom
  • medications
  • latex

In this article, we describe the medications, alternative treatments, and lifestyle strategies can help manage or prevent symptoms of an allergic reaction.

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Many different medications aim to ease allergies. Here are some common types:

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are medications used mainly for hay fever and other allergies. They counter the effects of histamines, substances that the body produces to help the immune system fight invaders such as viruses.

Histamines trigger swelling and cause blood vessels to dilate. This leads to symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes.

Antihistamines are available over the counter or by prescription. They come as tablets, liquids, nasal sprays, creams, and eye drops.

Older antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorphenamine (Chlor-Trimeton), relieve allergy symptoms but can cause drowsiness. Avoid driving while using these medications.

Other common side effects of these older antihistamines include:

Newer antihistamines have fewer side effects and are less likely to cause drowsiness, except cetirizine (Zyrtec). These medications come as tablets, and some brand-name options include Allegra, Alavert, Clarinex, Claritin, and Xyzal.

Common side effects of these antihistamines include:

  • headaches
  • dry mouth
  • nausea and malaise
  • drowsiness, to a lesser extent than with older antihistamines

Anyone who is pregnant or has any of the following health issues should speak to a doctor before using antihistamines:

  • high blood pressure
  • pressure in the eyes
  • urinary retention
  • cardiovascular disease
  • kidney or liver problems

Decongestants

Decongestants can help clear a stuffy nose and sinus congestion. These medications shrink blood vessels in the nose and open up nasal passages.

They are often available over the counter as:

  • nasal sprays
  • drops
  • capsules or pills
  • syrups or other liquids
  • powders for dissolving in water

Examples of brand-name decongestants include Afrin nasal spray and Sudafed PE. After consulting a pharmacist, a person might instead try Sudafed, which has a different active ingredient from the one in Sudafed PE.

Anyone who is pregnant or has high blood pressure should speak with a doctor before using a decongestant.

Side effects of decongestants can include:

  • drowsiness
  • restlessness and agitation
  • headaches
  • dry mouth
  • rashes
  • irritation in the nose

Nasal corticosteroids

Nasal corticosteroids are prescription medications that reduce the inflammation triggered in response to an allergen. In a spray, this type of drug can ease symptoms of a seasonal allergy, such as nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and a runny nose. Some brand-name options include Flonase and Nasacort.

Common side effects of nasal corticosteroids include:

  • itchiness, redness, and swelling in the nose
  • a feeling or stinging or burning in the nose
  • dryness and crustiness in the nose
  • nosebleeds
  • dryness and irritation in the throat
  • an unusual taste in the mouth

Epinephrine

Auto-injected epinephrine can treat a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Anyone who has symptoms of this should receive medical care, regardless of whether they also use epinephrine.

This prescription medication can reverse potentially fatal anaphylaxis symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, swelling in the throat, and a weak pulse. Some brand-name versions of the drug include EpiPen and Auvi-Q.

A person injects epinephrine into muscles in their thigh. The effects are rapid but do not last long. The drug has a half-life of 5 minutes, after which the effect of the drug is reduced by 50%.

A person may experience adverse effects of the drug, and these can affect various body systems. However, in the event of an urgent allergic reaction, the drug can be life saving. The doctor who prescribes it will explain how to use the device safely.

In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a safety alert to warn the public that epinephrine auto-injectors, such as EpiPen, EpiPen Jr., and generic versions, may malfunction. This could prevent a person from receiving the treatment in an emergency.

A person can view recommendations from the manufacturers of these auto-injectors here. It is also a good idea to speak with a healthcare provider about safe usage.

Allergy injections, or immunotherapy

The aim of immunotherapy is to build up immunity to an allergen by introducing small amounts of it into the body over time — through injections or by placing small amounts under the tongue. Some people find that this helps reduce their allergic reactions. It may also help end an allergy or stop minor reactions from becoming severe.

A person may need an injection once a week for around 7 months, then every 2 weeks. As the person’s immunity increases, they may then need a shot only once every 4 weeks. The treatment may need to continue for 3–5 years.

There can be various other ways to ease allergy symptoms. For example, a person may use a cold compresses to ease swelling of the eyes and pain in the sinuses. A person might use any of the following techniques in combination with the approaches described above.

Trying saline irrigation

Nasal irrigation rinses allergens and mucus out of the nose, which can make breathing easier. A person gently flushes a saline solution into the nostrils using a bulb syringe or neti pot. Be sure to follow the recommendations of the FDA to prevent this approach from causing a sinus infection.

Also, a person might find that a saline nasal spray causes less irritation than a medicated spray.

A 2018 review analyzed data from 747 people who had used saline nasal sprays for up to 3 months. The researchers concluded that the treatment might be helpful, and there were no reports of adverse effects, but they call for further studies to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this approach.

Here, learn more about the safe use of neti pots.

Avoiding trigger foods

Eating habits can affect overall health. Some people have severe reactions to specific foods, such as nuts, or components in food, such as gluten.

To identify the cause of an allergic reaction, it can help to keep a food diary and work with a doctor. Anyone with a food allergy should take care to avoid the trigger food. If a severe reaction is likely, a person should carry an epinephrine auto-injector with them.

What is the difference between a food intolerance and an allergy?

Having an anti-inflammatory diet

While a person with food allergies needs to avoid specific foods or components, other dietary choices may help more generally with allergies. It may benefit people with allergies to avoid foods likely to trigger inflammation and eat more foods that may reduce inflammation.

Foods that may trigger inflammation are rich in:

  • trans fats, which are in many baked goods and processed foods
  • refined sugar
  • saturated fat

One expert suggests opting for colorful, nonstarchy vegetables, as their high polyphenol content helps suppress substances that cause inflammation and trigger those that help fight it. Others recommend focusing on foods that are:

  • whole, not processed
  • plant-based
  • rich in healthy fats
  • rich in phytonutrients, such as antioxidants

Learn more about an anti-inflammatory diet and which foods to avoid.

The symptoms of an allergy arise from inflammation. They can range from mild to severe and include:

If a person loses consciousness or has difficulty breathing, they may be experiencing anaphylaxis. This can be fatal and needs emergency medical attention. Someone should call 911 or take the person to the emergency room at once. This is important whether or not the person has received an epinephrine injection.

To avoid allergic reactions, keep away from allergens whenever possible. A person may need to check food labels and ask how food has been prepared.

Sometimes cross-contamination, a small amount of an allergen ending up in a dish that should not contain it, is enough to trigger a reaction. In a restaurant serving a peanut sauce, for example, peanut residue may make its way into a dish from an improperly cleaned kitchen utensil. It can help to warn restaurant staff about a severe allergy ahead of time.

Frequently cleaning household surfaces and clothing can help rid the home of allergens such as dust, and regular grooming can help keep some pet-related allergies at bay.

Meanwhile, regularly changing air conditioning filters and keeping the windows closed can help reduce the amount of pollen that enters the home. Investing in an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter may also provide relief from airborne allergens. Research from 2020 suggests that HEPA filters can also help reduce symptoms of severe asthma in children.

How can housing affect a person’s risk of asthma and other health issues?

Allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe, and there are various ways to treat and prevent them.

Medications such as antihistamines, nasal sprays, and, in an emergency, epinephrine can reduce the effects of an allergic reaction. Some other approaches include avoiding exposure whenever possible, using a neti pot, having immunotherapy, and changing the diet.

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