Friday, May 4, 2012

Sneeze, Cough, Stuffy Nose...and LOTS of Medicines

Allergy season is in full swing, and there are so many allergy remedies out there. How do you decide what you need? Do you understand the difference between an antihistamine and a decongestant? And where does an expectorant fit in? It's often tough to figure out when to take which drug might help. Here are the basics:

1. Decongestants simply narrow the blood vessels in the lining of the nose, allowing air to pass more easily. Use these when your nose is "stopped up". Caution: do not use if you have high blood pressure, as they can potentially raise your pressure.

2. Antihistamines block the release of histamine, the chemical in your body that cause cells to swell and leak fluid, resulting in itchy eyes, sneezing, and runny nose. Use these to DRY UP (but not when you are simply "stuffy")

3. Expectorants are all medications that include guaifenesin. This drug breaks up mucus, allowing it to drain down from sinuses or be coughed up from your lungs. It wont work if you are dehydrated, so drink extra water- especially if you are also taking an antihistamine, because they DRY UP mucus and that makes it tougher to break up and clear. Use these when you have sinus and ear pressure, or if you have a cold "go to your chest." There is little evidence-based medicine to support the use of these, but clinically I have seen them help a great deal to relieve head congestion, and often avoid the use of antibiotics.

The AAFP a great website with more detail:

BOTTOM LINE: Don't always grab the "do everything" medicine for your stuffy, sneezy, coughy, itchy symptoms- understand which drug works for which complaint!

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