Taking hay fever medicines

Hay fever tablets, called antihistamines, are very effective at relieving the symptoms of hay fever. They're also available as liquids, eye drops and nasal sprays.

However, research conducted by Allergy UK in 2014 showed that for 62% of hay fever sufferers, their current medication isn't effective.

More than one in three (39%) hay fever sufferers use a steroid nasal spray but the research revealed only 14% are actually using it correctly. This means that for most people, their nasal spray just won’t work properly.

Maureen Jenkins, Director of Clinical Services, Allergy UK says: “Our research shows how reliant sufferers are on hay fever medication but for so many it simply isn’t working, or is being used ineffectively. We urge people to check whether they are using their medication correctly rather than just soldiering on and prolonging their suffering.

"If symptoms aren’t improving with treatment, it’s so important to get medical advice to control this debilitating condition, which is also associated with the development of asthma,” she adds.

How do antihistamines work?

Antihistamines work by blocking the action of histamine, a chemical released by the body after it has been exposed to pollen.

Pierre Dugué, consultant allergist at Guy's Hospital in London, says that histamine is kept in certain cells in the body known as mast cells. In an allergic reaction, these cells let the histamine leak into the blood and tissue, causing inflammation.

Antihistamines are chemical structures that block the action of histamine at special sites (receptors) in the skin, nose, blood vessels and airways.

Are antihistamines safe?

Older types of antihistamines, such as chlorphenamine (known as Piriton), are effective but can make you feel sleepy. So, they could be dangerous if you're driving a car or working with machinery.

Different antihistamine tablets for hay fever include cetirizine, fexofenadine and loratadine. A common antihistamine spray is azelastine.

Unlike older antihistamines, these newer types shouldn't cause drowsiness, although this can occasionally occur in some people.

If this does happen to you then avoid driving or using tools or machinery. Also contact your pharmacist or GP as there may be an alternative antihistamine you can take.

There have also been some side effects in some patients, such as dry mouth. As long as you're aware of this, you should be fine.

Read more about antihistamines

How to take antihistamines

Antihistamines generally have a good safety record, and are available over the counter (without prescription). People with symptoms should take them regularly, not just on odd days when they feel bad. They work better if you take them right through the hay fever season.

Antihistamines come in nasal sprays and eye drops if you don't want to take tablets. These target specific parts of the body so are useful if you only get itchy eyes, for example. For children, some antihistamines are available as a liquid.

It's sometimes helpful to start antihistamines a couple of weeks before your symptoms start, if they start at a predictable time.

Tips for successfully using your hay fever medicines

  • Aim to start using the preventative treatment or nasal sprays two weeks before your symptoms usually begin. This is because only taking medications occasionally on the worst days is much less effective.
  • If you are using a steroid nasal spray, tip your head forward (not back) look down, insert the nozzle and spray towards the outside of the nose.
  • Using a seawater nasal spray to clean nasal passages and wash-out mucus from blocked noses and sinuses can provide temporary relief and prime the nose for treatment.
  • For moderate to severe symptoms, a spray containing steroids plus antihistamine can now be prescribed by your GP, as can stronger eye drops. Additional drugs are available on prescription for people who have seasonal asthma as well as hay fever symptoms.
  • Nasal sprays containing decongestants may be useful on the worst days or for additional relief of congestion for an exam or special occasion. These should not be used regularly because, after a few days' use, they cause rebound congestion, making symptoms worse.
  • If you don’t feel your medication is working, see your pharmacist or GP, or contact the Allergy UK helpline on 01322 619898.

Read more about treatments for hay fever.

Page last reviewed: 06/06/2014

Next review due: 06/05/2017

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