Introduction 

Antihistamines are a type of medicine often used to treat a number of allergic health conditions.

These include:

Read more about what antihistamines are used for.

Antihistamines are available in tablet or capsule form (oral antihistamines), creams, lotions and gels (topical antihistamines) and as a nasal spray.

Many antihistamines are available over the counter at a pharmacy, although some require a prescription.

How antihistamines work

Antihistamines work by altering the way that cells are affected by a substance called histamine. Histamine is a chemical that the immune system uses to help protect the body's cells against infection.

Usually histamine is a useful substance, but if you're having an allergic reaction it's sometimes necessary to block its effects. Allergic reactions occur when your immune system mistakes a harmless substance, such as pollen, for a threat.

Read more about how antihistamines work.

Types of antihistamine and their effects

Antihistamine medicines are classified in three groups. These are:

  • first-generation antihistamines, which cause symptoms of drowsiness in most people and include diphenhydramine and chlorphenamine 
  • second-generation antihistamines, which do not usually cause symptoms of drowsiness and include loratadine and cetirizine
  • third-generation antihistamines, which cause fewer serious side effects than second-generation antihistamines and include levocetirizine and fexofenadine

Second- or third-generation antihistamines are usually recommended. Do not underestimate the levels of drowsiness caused by first-generation antihistamines – their effects can continue into the next day if you only take them at night.

An exception to these recommendations is sometimes made if the drowsiness caused by first-generation antihistamines can be beneficial, such as cases where people have problems sleeping because of itchy skin.

Read more about the side effects of antihistamines.

Safety

Even though most antihistamines are available without a prescription, you shouldn't assume that they're safe for everyone to take.

For example, antihistamines may have dangerous and unpredictable effects if taken by people with certain conditions or if combined with certain other substances.

It's also important to only take antihistamines as directed. Overdoses are possible and overuse can lead to you becoming reliant on the sedating effects.

Before taking antihistamines, always read the patient information leaflet that comes with the medicine to check the safety information.

Read more about who can use antihistamines and interactions of antihistamines.

Hay fever advice

Hay fever is an allergy to pollen that affects around one in four people. An expert explains how it's diagnosed, the symptoms and treatment.

Media last reviewed: 19/03/2013

Next review due: 19/03/2015

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Page last reviewed: 10/01/2013

Next review due: 10/01/2015