February 3, 2021
3 min. read

Comparing the Differences Between All OTC Allergy Medications


Seasonal allergies, or allergies that occur during a particular season, occur in about 8 percent of Americans, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. These types of allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to an outdoor allergen, like pollen. Seasonal allergies are most common during warmer months, though it is still possible to have an allergic reaction to an outdoor allergen year-round.

How you experience seasonal allergies will depend upon your specific allergy triggers as well as where you live. It’s also possible to react to indoor allergens like mold or pet dander. Luckily, there are a number of medications that treat these types of allergies, including both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription options. Read below to learn more about your over-the-counter allergy medication options.

Benefits of OTC Allergy Medications

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you are probably familiar with the symptoms: congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, itching, nasal swelling, hives, skin rashes, and itchy and watery eyes. There are a number of over-the-counter antihistamines available, and if you’re suffering from the above symptoms you can obtain them without having to get a prescription from your provider.

otc allergy

The Difference Between OTC and Prescription Allergy Medications

Both prescribed and OTC drugs are regulated by the FDA to ensure that they’re safe and effective when you follow the directions. In some cases, the same drug will come in both OTC and prescription versions, but the prescription version will be stronger. For example, you can treat a skin reaction with an OTC hydrocortisone cream or spray with a concentration of 1% or less.

But for more severe reactions, your provider can prescribe a 2.5% cream or ointment. Alternatively, a prescription medication can work in a different way than medications you may be able to buy over-the-counter. Certain OTC medications that seasonal allergies, called antihistamines, work by blocking chemicals called histamines.

But your provider may prescribe a medication to treat your seasonal allergies that blocks a different chemical, or works in a different way altogether. Lastly, you may see improvement from an OTC medication within an hour, while prescriptions can sometimes take a few days to improve symptoms.

patient provider

Types of OTC Allergy Medications

  • First Generation

First-generation OTC allergy medications include oral antihistamines. They are also the oldest group of OTC medications. They are sedating, which means they’re likely to make you drowsy after you use them. They also don’t last as long in your system as other medications, so they require more frequent doses than the newer generations.

A commonly used first-generation brand is Benadryl, which helps relieve runny nose, sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, and nose or throat itching, andl can also be used to treat hives and to reduce redness and itching.

first gen otc allergy

  • Second Generation

Second generation OTC allergy medications were developed more recently than their first generations counterparts. Because they work by targeting more specific receptors, there are fewer side effects associated with second generation medications, including drowsiness.

They also work longer in your body, so you’ll need fewer doses to get relief. Claratin, Zyrtec, and Allerga are all second generation allergy medications.

  • Topical

Antihistamine nasal sprays like Flonase are topical allergy treatments that help relieve sneezing, itchy or runny nose, sinus congestion, and postnasal drip. These medications can cause side effects such as a bitter taste, drowsiness or feeling tired.

Keep in mind that all medications, but prescription and over-the-counter, have side effects. Some medications can cause problems if you’re taking other medicines as well.

Given all the options and things to consider, it’s best to work with your doctor or allergy specialist to figure out whether an OTC or prescription medication is right for you. Make sure to tell them about your symptoms and any medicines you’ve tried in the past.

References Allergy medications: Know your options. (2020, May 01). Retrieved January 15, 2021 Allergy Medicines: OTC or Prescription? (2020, June 15). Retrieved January 15, 2021 Illinois, U. (2020, April 07). Over-the-Counter Antihistamines: Brands and Side Effects. Retrieved January 15, 2021

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