Treating Allergies During Pregnancy

Rhinitis during pregnancy can be due to allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, or non-allergic rhinitis. If the woman has had allergic rhinitis prior to pregnancy, this could worsen, stay the same, or even improve. This change in symptoms may be dependent upon many factors, including the presence of seasonal allergens and increase in pregnancy hormones.

Pregnant woman sitting outside eating
Creative RM / Peter Cade / Getty Images

Non-allergic rhinitis in pregnancy may also be due to an increase in pregnancy hormones, leading to nasal congestion, runny nose, and postnasal drip. This is called “rhinitis of pregnancy”. The symptoms may mimic allergies, but since they are non-allergic in nature, do not respond to anti-histamines.

The pregnant woman with rhinitis may be concerned about the safety of medications during pregnancy, and therefore avoid taking medications. If avoidance of allergic triggers is not possible or successful, medications may be needed to control symptoms.

Diagnosis of Allergic Rhinitis During Pregnancy

Allergy testing includes skin testing or blood tests, called a RAST. In general, allergy skin testing is not done during pregnancy, given the small chance of anaphylaxis which may occur. Anaphylaxis during pregnancy, if severe, could result in a decrease in blood and oxygen to the uterus, possibly harming the fetus.

Allergy skin testing is usually deferred during pregnancy, although a RAST would be a safe alternative if the results are needed during pregnancy.

Safety of Allergy Medications During Pregnancy

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), no drugs are considered completely safe in pregnancy. The organization advises that women carefully consider the use of any medications, especially pain medications. This is because no pregnant woman would want to sign up for a medication safety study while she is pregnant. Therefore, the FDA has assigned risk categories to medications based on use in pregnancy:

  • Category “A” medications are medications in which there are good studies in pregnant women showing the safety of the medication to the baby in the first trimester. There are very few medications in this category and no asthma medications.
  • Category “B” medications show good safety studies in pregnant animals but there are no human studies available.
  • Category “C” medications may result in adverse effects on the fetus when studied in pregnant animals, but the benefits of these drugs may out weight the potential risks in humans.
  • Category “D” medications show clear risk to the fetus, but there may be instances in which the benefits outweigh the risks in humans.
  • Category “X” medications show clear evidence of birth defects in animals and/or human studies and should not be used in pregnancy.

Before any medication is taken during pregnancy, the doctor and patient must have a risk/benefit discussion. This means that the benefits of the medication should be weighed against the risks—and the medication should only be taken if the benefits outweigh the risks.

Treatment of Rhinitis During Pregnancy

  • Nasal Saline: Rhinitis of pregnancy tends not to respond to antihistamines or nasal sprays. This condition may respond temporarily to nasal saline (salt water), which is safe to use during pregnancy (it is not actually a drug). Nasal saline is available over the counter, is inexpensive, and can be used as often as needed. Nasal saline can be either used for irrigation (washing out the nasal/sinus passages) or as a spray. If using as an irrigation, instructions should be followed precisely to appropriately clean irrigation bottle and to safely prepare saline using sterile water for irrigation. If a nasal saline spray is being used, generally, 3 to 6 sprays are placed in each nostril, leaving the saline in the nose for up to 30 seconds, and then blowing the nose.
  • Antihistamines: Older antihistamines, such as chlorpheniramine and tripelennamine, are the preferred agents to treat allergic rhinitis during pregnancy, and are both category B medications. Newer antihistamines such as over-the-counter loratadine (Claritin®/Alavert® and generic forms) and cetirizine (Zyrtec® and generic forms) are also pregnancy category B medications.
  • Decongestants: Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed and many generic forms) is the preferred oral decongestant to treat allergic and non-allergic rhinitis during pregnancy, although should be avoided during the entire first trimester, as it has been associated with infant gastroschisis. This medication is pregnancy category C.
  • Medicated Nasal Sprays: Cromolyn nasal spray (NasalCrom®, generics) is helpful in treating allergic rhinitis if it is used before exposure to an allergen and prior to the onset of symptoms.  This medication is pregnancy category B and is available over the counter. If this medication is not helpful, one nasal steroid, budesonide (Rhinocort Aqua®), received a pregnancy category B rating (all others are category C), and therefore would be the nasal steroid of choice during pregnancy. Rhinocort became available over-the-counter without a prescription in early 2016.
  • Immunotherapy: Allergy shots can be continued during pregnancy, but it is not recommended to start this treatment while pregnant. Typically the dose of the allergy shots is not increased, and many allergists will cut the dose of the allergy shot by 50 percent during pregnancy. Some allergists feel that allergy shots should be stopped during pregnancy, given the risk of anaphylaxis and possible danger to the fetus as a result. Other than anaphylaxis, there is no data showing that the allergy shots themselves are actually harmful to the fetus.
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