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Using Over-the-Counter Allergy Medicines

Keep the following guidelines in mind when looking for allergy relief. 


Some over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medicines will make you drowsy. They may contain antihistamines, decongestants, or both. Don't take them when you will be driving or working with machinery. Newer antihistamines are available over the counter. These include loratadine, cetirizine, levocetirizine, and fexofenadine. These are less likely to make you sleepy. But they may still cause drowsiness in some people.  

Use only one OTC antihistamine at a time unless otherwise suggested by your healthcare provider. Take a list of the OTC medicines you are using to any provider visits you may have.

Nasal sprays

Nonprescription decongestant nasal sprays or drops such as oxymetazoline may make you feel better for a while. But if you use them for too long, they can actually make a stuffy nose (congestion) worse. This is called a rebound effect. Always:

  • Watch for side effects, such as nosebleeds, fast heartbeat, and agitation.

  • Use them for only a few days at a time, often 3 days of continued use. Then, it's safe to use them again after giving your nose a rest for a few days.

Other key points about nasal sprays:

  • Saline sprays or drops can help moisten nasal secretions and help clear the nose and sinuses. They are safe to use continuously. Saline washes, such as a neti pot, are also safe to use continuously.

  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays are very effective for treating nasal allergies. Fluticasone, budesonide, and triamcinolone are now available over the counter without a prescription. They may take a few days until you notice that your symptoms are better.

  • Follow the package instructions. Don't take more or more often than directed. Make sure you know whether you can take the medicine with your other medicines or with health conditions you may have.

  • Nasal antihistamine sprays also work well. Azelastine is now available over the counter. Other nasal antihistamines are available by prescription. They may also cause sleepiness. Don't drink alcohol when using these medicines.

Eye drops

Eye drops may help itchy and irritated eyes. But they may not relieve all your symptoms. Keep in mind, too, that using certain eye drops for a long time can make your condition worse.

Many different eye drops are available without a prescription. For mild eye symptoms, artificial tears or other wetting eye drops may be enough to help control symptoms. For more moderate symptoms, medicated eye drops may be needed. Ketotifen or olopatadine eye drops are both effective OTC medicines. If these do not help relieve your symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider about other treatment choices.

Read carefully

Always follow the package instructions. Don't take more or more often than directed. Taking more medicine than recommended will not necessarily ease symptoms faster. And it can be dangerous. Make sure you know if you can take the medicine with your other medicines or with health conditions you may have. If you take prescription medicines, bring a list of them with you and ask the pharmacist which OTC allergy medicines are safe for you to use.


Keep your medicines in a cool, dry place that is out of children’s sight and reach. Don’t keep medicines in the bathroom cabinet where it can get hot and humid.

Online Medical Reviewer: Deborah Pedersen MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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