An estimated 40 percent of children suffer from allergic rhinitis, and there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) medications aimed at controlling seasonal allergy symptoms. But choosing the right medication isn’t always easy. 

Step one? Visit your pediatrician to make sure allergies really are the culprit, says Julie Kalabalik, PharmD, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Fairleigh Dickinson University School of Pharmacy in Florham Park. “There is a concern for undiagnosed asthma so, before treating, you want to confirm it really is allergic rhinitis.”  

Divide and Conquer

When choosing an OTC allergy medication, always read the drug fact label and try to match the medication to your child’s symptoms. 

Antihistamines block the release of histamines, chemicals that cause allergy symptoms. They work best for runny noses, itchy eyes, and sneezing. Parents may recognize first-generation antihistamines, like Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton, from their own childhood. While effective, these drugs may not be the best choice for today’s children. “The old generation antihistamines cause more side effects, such as drowsiness or sedation,” says Dr. Kalabalik. They can also excite the central nervous system in some children, leading to insomnia and hyperactive behavior.

Zyrtec, Claritin, and Allegra are examples of second-generation antihistamines. Approved for children aged 2 and older, the newer antihistamines don’t cause drowsiness or other symptoms common with first-generation antihistamines and many require only a single daily dose. 

Decongestants shrink blood vessels in the nose, providing short-term relief. Sudafed tablets and Neo-Synephrine nasal spray are common decongestants. “Decongestant nasal spray should only be used a maximum of three days,” says Kalabalik. “Longer use can cause rebound stuffiness.” Some combination products contain both decongestants and antihistamines. 

Nasal Corticosteroids reduce congestion caused by swelling of the nasal passages but can take up to a week to become fully effective. They offer relief for runny or itchy noses and have fewer side effects than oral steroids. Nasacort recently became the first nasal steroid preparation available without a prescription. 

Nasal Saline is a sterile salt water solution used to rinse pollen out of nasal passages. Using a bulb syringe or Neti pot, the nasal cavity is gently irrigated with the saline solution. 

If OTC medications just aren’t cutting it or allergy symptoms drag on longer than two months, ask your doctor about prescription medications.

Time for an Expert

Still feeling confused about medication choices? Check with your pharmacist. “We encourage questions,” says Kalabalik. “Most pharmacists are well-trained to counsel patients. We want all customers to be informed consumers.”

Mom of three LaNeta Crighton is a registered nurse from Harding Township.