According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 50 million Americans experience an allergic reaction each year, and the best treatment will depend on the cause and severity of the reaction.
In this article, we take a close look at a range of treatments for allergic reactions, depending on a person’s symptoms and their severity, including anaphylaxis.
- Most minor allergy symptoms can be treated with antihistamines, corticosteroids, or decongestants.
- Saline nasal rinses can be used for congestion-related allergy symptoms.
- Corticosteroid creams can treat skin rashes related to allergies.
- Immunotherapy is a long-term treatment option for chronic allergy symptoms.
- Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency, and people should call 911 if they suspect someone is having an anaphylactic reaction.
What is an allergic reaction?
An allergic reaction occurs when cells in the immune system interpret a foreign substance or allergen as harmful.
The immune system overreacts to these allergens and produces histamine, which is a chemical that causes allergy symptoms, such as inflammation, sneezing, and coughing.
Mild allergic reactions can usually be treated with home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
Treating allergic reactions
Many mild to moderate allergic reactions can be treated at home or with OTC medications. The following treatments are commonly used to reduce the symptoms of an allergic reaction:
Antihistamines can help to treat most minor allergic reactions regardless of the cause. These drugs reduce the body’s production of histamine, which reduces all symptoms, including sneezing, watering eyes, and skin reactions.
Second-generation antihistamines, including Claritin (loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine), are less likely to cause drowsiness than first-generation antihistamines, such as Benadryl.
Antihistamines come in several forms, usually to help deliver the medication closer to the source of the reaction or make it easier to consume, such as:
- oral pills
- dissolvable tablets
- nasal sprays
- eye drops
Antihistamines in these forms are available from pharmacies, to buy online, or on prescription from a doctor.
Antihistamines can also be taken to prevent allergies. Many people with seasonal or pet allergies will begin taking antihistamines when they know they are going to be exposed to an allergen.
A person who is pregnant or has a liver disorder should consult their doctor before taking antihistamines.
Nasal decongestant pills, liquids, and sprays can also help reduce stuffy, swollen sinuses and related symptoms, such as a sore throat or coughing.
However, decongestant medications should not be taken continuously for more than 72 hours.
Nasal decongestants are available over the counter and online.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) may also be used to help temporarily reduce pain, swelling, and cramping caused by allergies.
Avoid the allergen
The best way to treat and prevent allergic reactions is to know what triggers the reaction and stay away from it, especially food allergens.
When this is not possible or realistic, using antihistamines or decongestants when in contact with allergens can help to treat the symptoms.
Use a saline sinus rinse
When allergies cause sinus problems, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) recommend a person rinse their sinuses with saline. This can remove allergens and clear the airways.
The AAAAI recommend the following saline recipe:
- mix 3 teaspoons of salt (without iodide) with 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- add 1 teaspoon of this mixture to 8 ounces of boiled water
- dissolve the mixture in the water then use as a saline rinse
Sinus rinsing devices can be purchased online or from a pharmacy.
Treating environmental allergies
For airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust, and mold spores, additional treatment options include:
- throat lozenges with soothing ingredients, such as menthol, honey, or ginger
- shower and wash all clothing after being exposed to an allergen
- exercise for a few minutes to help reduce nasal congestion
Treating allergies on the skin
For allergic reactions that cause skin symptoms, including those associated with allergens found in animal saliva, poisonous plants, drugs, chemicals and metals, additional treatment options include:
- Topical corticosteroid creams or tablets. Corticosteroids contain steroids that reduce inflammation and itching. Mild forms of these creams can be found online, and a doctor can prescribe stronger versions.
- Moisturizing creams. Emollient creams with soothing ingredients, such as calamine can treat skin reactions.
- Bite or sting medication. Medication targeted to reduce allergic reactions to insect bites or stings have a similar effect to other allergy medications.
- Ice pack. Applying an ice pack wrapped in cloth to the area for 10- to 15-minute intervals can reduce inflammation.
Treating severe allergies
People should speak to a professional if they have or suspect that they have severe or chronic allergies.
A doctor or allergy specialist can prescribe medications that contain much stronger doses of the compounds found in OTC products.
Treatment options for chronic or severe allergies include:
- Immunotherapy, or allergy shots. Immunotherapy can be between 90 and 98 percent effective at reducing allergic reactions to insect stings, for instance.
- Prescription asthma medications, such as bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids.
- Oral cromolyn can be taken for food allergies.
- Drug desensitization therapy is used for specific allergens.