You’re Probably Taking the Wrong Allergy Medication

Benita Lee
Benita Lee, MPH, is on the Research Team at GoodRx.
Posted on

This is shaping up to be an especially tough year for people with allergies. With all the choices for allergy medications out there, how do you make sure you’re prepared with the best one? Here are three questions you should ask before popping that next allergy pill.

1. How long do my allergy symptoms last?

Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is caused by environmental allergens like pollen in the air. Symptoms include itching, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes. Depending on how long these symptoms last, certain allergy medications may work better than others.

Here are the three most common kinds of medications people use:


If your allergies only appear sporadically – say when pollen count is high or you have that random encounter with your friend’s cat – fast-acting antihistamines will be your best bet. These include medications like Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (loratidine), Allegra (fexofenadine), and Zyrtec (cetirizine).

Antihistamines block histamine chemicals from attaching to your immune cells, which normally would trigger allergy symptoms like runny nose and itchy eyes. However, antihistamines can lose their effectiveness in just three weeks of daily use, so you may have to find another solution if your symptoms last long enough.

Nasal steroids

If you experience daily or year-round allergies, you’ll want to look into nasal steroids like Nasonex (mometasone), Flonase (fluticasone propionate), Nasacort AQ (triamcinolone), or Rhinocort Aqua (budesonide). These medications can take longer to work than antihistamines, but healthcare providers consider them to be the most effective maintenance therapy for nasal allergies.

Here’s how they work: When you have allergies, a complicated series of reactions occur in your immune cells between the moment you sense an allergen and when you get that runny nose. Nasal steroids act early on in these reactions, even before histamine is made, and prevent those processes that lead to a full-blown allergic response.


These medications, which include Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) and Afrin (oxymetazoline), improve breathing by relieving nasal and sinus congestion. Some medicines like Allegra-D (fexofenadine/pseudoephedrine) and Claritin-D (loratadine/pseudoephedrine) combine both decongestants and antihistamines into the same pill, so they can target congestion and other symptoms at the same time.

2. Will my allergy medication make me drowsy?

Like so many medicines, allergy medications can have side effects.

Nasal Steroids

Serious side effects with nasal steroid sprays are rare because very little of these medicines are absorbed by the body. They do, however, carry the risk of nasal tissue inflammation, so regular check-ups with a doctor are important when using them for long periods of time.

First-Generation Antihistamines

Drowsiness is a common side effect of older, first-generation antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine). These medications work quickly to control allergy symptoms, but they can cross over into your brain and cause drowsiness along with other neurological symptoms like difficulty concentrating.

Second-Generation Antihistamines

Brain-related side effects are less of an issue with second-generation antihistamines like Claritin (loratadine) and Allegra (fexofenadine) because they’re less likely to enter the brain. Zyrtec (cetirizine), however, is an exception — while it is a second-generation antihistamine, you can still get sleepy from taking it. Common side effects of second-generation antihistamines include dry mouth, headaches, and nausea. As a group, they may also be less effective at controlling nasal congestion compared to first-generation antihistamines.

3. How much will my allergy medication cost?

Once you’ve found an allergy medication that fits your needs, you’ll ultimately want a good price for it. All of the medications listed in this article have brand-name and generic forms. Most are also available over-the-counter. Their cost will largely depend on whether you buy them over the counter or with a prescription. And as it turns out, visiting your doctor and getting a prescription for a generic medicine can be well worth it.

Let’s take Claritin (loratadine) as an example. Claritin (30 tablets) costs about $25 retail. If you get a prescription for the generic form, loratadine, you might pay about $13 cash instead for the same amount. That’s roughly a 50% savings. Now, if you use a GoodRx coupon with your prescription, that same amount of loratadine can cost as little as $4, saving you 84% off the brand-name, over-the-counter price.

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