by James Hubbard, MD, MPH



You have to admit, the commercials are convincing: Your allergies are keeping you inside, virtually blocked from the outdoors. Otherwise you’re sneezing, have watery eyes, just miserable.

You take a pill, and whammo, you can do what you wish. Want to roll in the grass, sniff a little ragweed? No worries. Pet a cat even if they usually make you break out in hives? No problem. Whatever you were allergic to before, you’re not anymore, as long as you take the pill.

But do these allergy medicines actually work? If so, how well? And what about home remedies for allergies? Have they gone the way of the iron lung?

Here’s my take.

Do Allergy Medicines Work?

The over-the-counter nonsedating antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), and cetirizine (Zyrtec), actually work quite well for many people … and not so well for some. The only way to know whether they’ll work for you is to try them and see. (Be sure to read the directions, precautions, side effects, and interactions carefully.)

The sedating antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can work as well as or better than the nonsedating kind but have the obvious problem of causing drowsiness.

A key to getting the most out of any of these is to start them early—as soon as you get the first hint of sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose. Or, if you have the symptoms every year at a certain time (seasonal allergies) start them at the beginning of the season. They can take a few days to reach maximum effectiveness, and if you wait until your allergies are really bad, those histamines causing the symptoms can overwhelm the medicine.

If the meds are working, don’t use them sporadically as needed. If you want the best results, continue taking them every day throughout the season.

For more on allergy-medicine treatment, click here.

But even if the medicines are working well, my experience has been that most people are still going to have allergy symptoms (just less) if they have a lot of contact with what they’re allergic to. And, of course, in some people the medicine just doesn’t work that well in the first place. Either way, here’s where the home remedies for allergies come in strong.

Do Allergy Home Remedies Work?

There are a lot of home remedies that work well for seasonal allergies. The first is the simplest: avoidance. If you’re allergic to something, you’re just going to have to avoid it as best you can. Even with antihistamines—often even after allergic shots—if you’re allergic to, say, goldenrods, no matter what you do, you’re likely to start sneezing if you go out in a field and pick a few.

In fact, stay in when whatever what you’re allergic to is at its worst. Keep your windows closed, and turn on the air-conditioning if you have it, which will help filter the air.

But what about when you have to go out? What about hikes? Camping? Disasters? Even outside work? What if the electricity is off?

  1. Wear a dust or surgical mask, or wrap a scarf loosely around your mouth and nose. This won’t keep you from breathing in all the pollens; some are very small. But it should help.
  2. Wash the pollen off your face, eyes, and nose frequently with water. Even if you don’t see it, it’s there if you’ve been outside.
  3. Take a good shower or bath immediately after coming inside for the day. Wash your hair and change your clothes—two places pollens like to linger.

Neti pot



Click on the photos for one place to buy a neti pot and butterbur. (I’m an Amazon Affiliate.)

Those are effective external preventers. There are also ways to fight the allergens internally:

  1. Wash the pollen out of your sinuses. I have a post and video on how do this using a neti pot (my favorite way) and using a cup (also easy). This nasal irrigation is my home-remedy secret weapon against allergies. If you haven’t tried it, you need to. I think you’ll be impressed. But always use sterile water or solution. You may have heard about the rare but deadly brain-eating amoeba that has affected a handful of people after nasal rinsing. You can avoid this by using sterile water or boiling tap water for about a minute (of course let it cool before using). For more on avoiding the amoeba, click here.
  2. Try a daily dose of raw, local honey. Although never proven by studies, many people swear that taking a teaspoon a day helps their allergies. The reasoning is that the honey may contain a small amount of local pollens and work like allergy shots. By eating the honey you get a tiny dose of daily pollens. Your body starts recognizing the pollen, gets used to it, and stops making antihistamines to fight it off. Another theory is the anti-inflammatory effects of honey are what helps. Again, studies have shown these effects to be iffy at best, but it won’t hurt to try. CAVEATS: (1) Never give raw honey to children under 2 years old. It can contain a small amount of bacteria that’s safe for adults but has been lethal to small children. (2) If you’re allergic to bees, you could have a reaction to the honey. (3) Just like with allergy shots, taking in even a small amount of something you’re allergic to could potentially cause a bad allergic reaction.
  3. Consider butterbur, an herb that has been shown to work as well as the over-the-counter antihistamines. But before you use it, read up on the side effects and other precautions. CAVEATS: (1) People who are allergic ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies can have an allergic reaction to butterbur. To me, that’s a good reason to take the over-the-counter medicine instead, if you can get it. (2) The only type that’s been proven safe is the one that states that the pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) have been removed. These PAs sometimes cause liver damage. (3) Studies haven’t looked beyond safely taking butterbur for more than 12 weeks at a time. For more on butterbur, click here.

What about you? Do you have seasonal allergies? Have you found the right combination of treatments to keep you sniffle-free?



Sneezing photo: Flickr/Steven Leggett, shared under CC BY-NC 2.0.