Zorba Paster: There’s Hope For The Sneezy And Red-Eyed

Over-The-Counter Allergy Options Have Come A Long Way

Sunshinecity via Flickr (CC-BY)

Every year at this time, I get allergy questions. Spring or fall is the peak time in Wisconsin, but if you live in Arizona, which some of my readers do, you can have allergies all year long.

The great Arizona migration started when I was a kid in the ’60s — people with terrible allergies moved there to escape the pollen. Then, guess what folks did? They planted flowers to make it look like the Midwest. The result is they’re not pollen-free. Not as bad as our pollen times, but not the pollen-free desert they hoped to live in.

Now back in that day, we only had antihistamines that made you sleep. My mom gave me Chlorpheniramine, under the brand name Coricidin or Benadryl. That stuff worked, but made you so sleepy. The cure was worse than the disease.

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But for the last 20 years we’ve had better allergy pills — and now, thanks to the federal Food and Drug Administration, they’re over-the-counter without a prescription. It took them years to realize that people could safely take these drugs correctly, without overdosing.

So look for generic Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec. If one tablet doesn’t work, take two or four tablets. That’s right: Double or quadruple the dose. It’s safe to do and is the best first step to see if the allergy med will work for you. Of the three, Zyrtec works the best, but is most likely to make you a tad drowsy.

Now what about nasal sprays? I’m not talking about Afrin and all the sprays in that class. Those are sprays that you can only use for a couple of days or you’ll get hooked on them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen over the years get addicted to these things and have trouble getting off of them. For a cold, two to three days is OK; but for allergies, stay away.

It’s the steroid nasal sprays that the FDA finally approved for over-the-counter use that I want to talk about. Flonase generic is a godsend for many. I used to prescribe it all the time. While allergy pills kick in right away, these things take a day or two to work. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t see something right away.

Start out with two puffs twice daily. Give it a week or so. If that works, then cut down to one puff twice daily. Wait a week or so — if that works, then see if one puff a day works. Experiment to find the minimal spray that stops that nasal congestion.

What’s good about the steroid sprays and the antihistamines is that you can combine them. During ragweed season, I found that one spray in the morning works just fine, but on a high pollen day I take an antihistamine too.

Now, if you need eye drops for itching, start out with Nafcon A and Zaditor, both over-the-counter meds. Go to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist which eye drops they would recommend. If your eyes continue to itch, then you might need a prescription. That’s where a call to your doctor counts.

What if all this fails? What if you’re swallowing the pills, spraying the spray and dropping liquid in your eyes and you’re still suffering? That’s where your allergist might be able to help. That’s where shots fit in — and other meds, other tricks that they have in their bag.

My spin: Most of the time you can fix the allergy problem by buying off-the-shelf stuff. If not, then it’s time to see your family doctor or an allergist. They have a few more options than you can find on the drugstore shelf. Stay well.