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Buying guide for best otc allergy medications

The weather’s getting nice, but you’re stuck indoors. Everyone else is enjoying dinner outside on the patio, but you can’t stop sneezing. Sound familiar? Allergies affect hundreds of thousands of people each year, and without a way to combat them, allergies can make your life miserable. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that works well for most people: over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medication.

These allergy medications, available without a prescription, can relieve symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes, but they don’t all work in the same way, and they aren’t without side effects. Choose the wrong one and you could find yourself falling asleep at lunch.

We at BestReviews have put together this shopping guide to walk you through the different types of OTC allergy medications on the market. It explains the various factors to consider when choosing a formula so you can find the one that’s right for you.

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Some OTC allergy medications include a pain reliever. One of these might be a good choice if you also get headaches along with the congestion.

OTC allergy medication factors to consider

The most important factor when choosing an OTC allergy medication is what symptoms each one treats. It won’t do you much good to use a product that focuses on relieving itchy eyes if you’re mostly suffering from a runny nose.

Most OTC allergy medications clearly list which symptoms they treat on the product label. You should always read the label carefully before you buy. If you’re having trouble deciding between two allergy medications, consult your doctor or pharmacist about which one is best for you.


OTC allergy medications come in several different forms, including pills, nasal sprays, eye drops, and topical.

  • Pills: Pills are the most popular type of OTC allergy medication and are designed to treat a variety of symptoms. The two main types are antihistamines and decongestants.

    • Antihistamines work to relieve your symptoms by blocking histamines – compounds produced by the body in response to allergens that cause allergic reactions.

    • Decongestants work to reduce swelling in tissues that may prevent you from breathing normally.

Some allergy medications contain both. Unless your only symptoms are congestion and sinus pressure, you should look for an allergy medication that includes antihistamines because these treat a wider range of symptoms, including sneezing, itchy eyes and throat, and runny nose.

  • Nasal sprays: These are primarily designed to treat nasal congestion, but some may also work on sneezing and itchy or runny noses. Sprays usually contain saline, an aerosolized decongestant, or some other type of medication. To use these medications, you spray a little bit in each nostril and wait for the active ingredient to take effect.

  • Eye drops: Allergy eye drops usually contain a liquid antihistamine that prevents histamines from making your eyes itch and water. The drops may also help to reduce eye redness. However, drops might not be the best option if you have other symptoms besides eye irritation.

  • Topical: Topical allergy medications can be useful in calming rashes resulting from direct contact with an allergen. These are usually a type of corticosteroid cream that you apply directly to the affected area to help soothe irritated skin.

Side effects

Like all medications, OTC allergy medications can cause side effects in some people. It’s important to be aware of these side effects before you begin taking the medicine to make sure that you’re okay with them. You can find a full list of the side effects of your particular medication by reading the product label.

  • Drowsiness: This is one of the most common side effects of allergy medications. It might not be an issue if you take the medicine before you go to bed at night, but it’s a problem if you’re taking it at the start of the workday. Fortunately, there are several non-drowsy allergy formulas for daytime use.

  • Dry eyes, nose, mouth

  • Upset stomach

  • Dizziness

  • Dependency: Most OTC allergy medications are safe for long-term use, but there are a few exceptions. Continual use of decongestant nasal sprays can lead to dependency. This isn’t the same as addiction, but it means that you might begin to experience difficulty breathing normally without the decongestant spray even when it’s not allergy season.


If you’re going over to a friend’s house for the evening and you’re allergic to the cat, you need an OTC allergy medication that will get you through the next few hours in relative comfort. But if you suffer from seasonal allergies, you’re going to need something that you can take for extended periods of time.

Another factor to consider is how long the allergy medicine claims to work. Some are effective for 8 hours at a time, while others last for 12 or 24. This is an especially important consideration if you have seasonal allergies because it will impact how many doses you need to take each day.

OTC allergy medication prices

OTC allergy medication can cost anywhere from about $5 to $25, depending on the formula and the number of pills, sprays, or drops in each container. As a general rule, the more symptoms that an allergy medicine treats, the more expensive it is.

When purchasing allergy medicine, it’s more important to focus on the price per dose or the daily cost of using the medication rather than the cost of the container. If you only need the medicine occasionally, compare the different types based on the cost per dose. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you will probably want to pay attention to the price per day because you might need to use the medication once or more every day for total relief from symptoms.


  • Consult your doctor. If you have a serious health condition or any questions about an OTC allergy medication or whether it’s right for you, consult your doctor first.

  • Follow package directions. Never take an OTC allergy medicine more frequently than the package directions advise because this could cause unwanted side effects.

  • Stop taking the medication of you experience serious side effects. If you begin to experience any serious side effects, stop taking the medication and visit your doctor as soon as possible.

  • Start the medication before symptoms appear. If you have seasonal allergies, consider starting your allergy medication before you have any symptoms so that the medicine can reach its maximum effectiveness before you need it.

  • Don’t use nasal allergy spray to treat colds or sinus infections.

  • Don’t drive or operate machinery when using an OTC allergy medication that causes drowsiness.
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When giving OTC allergy medication to a child, use one specifically formulated for children and follow the dosing instructions carefully.


Q. I took my nasal spray hours ago and it still isn’t working. What’s wrong?

A. Nothing is likely wrong. Nasal sprays can take a few hours to go into effect, and they don’t usually reach maximum effectiveness for a couple of days or weeks. That’s why it’s best to begin using the medication before your symptoms appear if you can.

Q. Will my OTC allergy medication interfere with other medicines I’m taking?

A. It’s possible. You should always check with your doctor if you’re concerned about drug interactions between different medications.

Q. Are OTC allergy medications safe to take during pregnancy?

A. Most allergy medications are safe enough to be used during pregnancy, but you should consult your doctor before you begin taking any.

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