With allergy season in full swing, many sufferers resort to over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms. These medications may not be the best treatment option, however, if your allergy symptoms are severe or if symptoms persist despite medication.

There are three main ways to manage allergies: Take medication, receive immunotherapy, and make changes to your environment to lessen your exposure to substances that trigger an allergic reaction.

Many people try over-the-counter allergy medications first, and they are considered relatively safe and can be taken on a long-term basis. While a number of these medications exist, the most common contain an antihistamine agent. This blocks histamine — a key molecule in allergic inflammation — from binding to its receptor on the cells.

CHECK INGREDIENTS

If you choose a nonprescription antihistamine, make sure you know what ingredients are included in the medication. Those that contain diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine are older-generation, short-acting drugs that often cause drowsiness. Other side effects of these medications may include dry mouth, blurring of vision, nausea or headaches.

Newer antihistamines that contain cetirizine, loratadine or fexofenadine tend to trigger less drowsiness, and the effects last longer. They may cause some side effects, such as dry mouth or abdominal pain.

Another type of allergy medication that recently was approved for purchase without prescription is intranasal corticosteroid spray, such as fluticasone or triamcinolone nasal spray. These medicines are sprayed or inhaled into the nose to help relieve stuffy nose, nasal irritation and other symptoms of allergies.

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SEE AN ALLERGIST

For allergic symptoms that are mild, last only a short time or happen only a few months a year, over-the-counter medications generally are a good choice. If your symptoms are severe, persist continuously or do not respond well to nonprescription medication, consultation with an allergist is recommended.

An allergist can clarify whether your symptoms truly are being caused by allergies versus some other conditions that can mimic allergies, such as nonallergic rhinitis.

If symptoms are due to an allergy, an allergist often can identify the cause and pinpoint what is triggering your reaction. Once an allergy is diagnosed, treatment could be a combination of prescription and nonprescription medications. Or other strategies, such as allergen avoidance and allergen immunotherapy, may be appropriate.

Allergy symptoms are the result of an immune response to a substance that usually shouldn’t cause an immune reaction. Changing your habits to avoid exposure to those allergy-causing substances, called allergens, potentially can reduce your symptoms. For example, if you have a ragweed pollen allergy, wearing a tightfitting face mask can reduce inhalation of pollen when you are outdoors in the fall. Your allergist can suggest allergen avoidance techniques that fit your situation.

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The other treatment option, allergen immunotherapy, is available as an injection and in oral tablet form. The injection form — sometimes referred to as an allergy shot — has been around for almost 100 years. It has been studied in great scientific detail and often can be very effective in relieving allergy symptoms. Oral immunotherapy to grass and ragweed recently was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and others are in the works. These therapies often are effective, but they may have some treatment-specific concerns your allergist can review with you.