Should You Take Allergy Medications for a Cold?

There are a lot of allergy medications available over the counter now and many multi-symptom cold medications include ingredients that are used to treat allergies. But do they actually help if you are suffering from a cold and not allergies?

Results are conflicting as to whether or not allergy medications — also known as antihistamines — relieve symptoms that are caused by colds. Some studies have found that they are effective at relieving symptoms such as a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes but others have not.

What Are Antihistamines?

Antihistamines are a class of medications that inhibit the histamine reaction in the body. Our bodies create histamine when they are exposed to an allergen or in response to an infection. The histamine is what causes typical allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and runny nose. These symptoms can occur with infections such as the common cold as well. When you take an antihistamine, it is supposed to block the histamine reaction and alleviate those symptoms.

There are many types of antihistamines available over the counter. Many of the first generation antihistamines cause drowsiness but newer products are less likely to cause drowsiness and have fewer side effects. Some common antihistamines that you may see include:

  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • Claritin (loratadine)
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine)
  • Allegra (fexofenadine)

Common Cold Symptoms

Pretty much everyone will get a cold at some point in their life and most of us will suffer through many more than one. But colds can be caused by hundreds of different viruses and they don't cause the same symptoms in every person every time. However, there are certain symptoms that are characteristic of most colds. These may include:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Feeling tired/worn down
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Fever (typically in children, not adults)

Why Don't Antihistamines Always Work?

It isn't entirely clear why antihistamines work for some people when they have colds and not for others. It's possible that some symptoms — such as a runny nose — are caused by responses in the body that are not related to histamine production, so antihistamines have no effect. It's also possible that some people just respond better to the medications than others. In general, antihistamines are more effective at relieving symptoms caused by allergies than colds. However, they are generally considered safe for most people so you may want to try one if you are experiencing cold symptoms that they may help with — specifically runny nose and itching.

Talk to your healthcare provider before starting any new medication to be sure it is safe for you.

Other Options

If you are dealing with cold and taking antihistamines isn't right for you or they aren't helping, there are other options to relieve your symptoms while you wait for the virus to run its course.

First, figure out what symptoms you have and which ones are bothering you the most. Then you can read the cold medication guide to help you find the options that may be most useful for you.

If you are looking for relief without using any medications, you have plenty of options as well:

  • Saline spray
  • Neti pot
  • Humidifiers
  • Natural and herbal cold remedies

A Word From Verywell

Although research has been inconclusive, taking antihistamines for cold symptoms may be worth a try as long as your healthcare provider feels they are safe for you. Just be aware that they may or may not help and could cause side effects.

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Article Sources

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  • "Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't and What Can't Hurt". Common Cold 7 Jun 12. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

  • "Common Cold: Treatment". Common Cold 11 Feb 11. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.