Should You Take Allergy Medications for a Cold?

Antihistamines help relieve allergy symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Considering that the common cold can cause you experience the same issues, it's natural to think antihistamines can help when you're sick too. It's true that these two conditions have a lot of in common when it comes to how they make you feel. But the causes of their symptoms differ—as might what may be needed to tame them.

For years, research has been divided on how well antihistamines relieve symptoms like these when they due to a cold. That said, researchers now seem to be arriving at better answers.

What Are Antihistamines?

Antihistamines are a class of medications that help relieve allergy symptoms.

When you're exposed to an allergen, your body creates a chemical called histamine, which is part of a complex reaction by the immune system. Histamine is what causes typical allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, itching, and runny nose.

Antihistimines block that reaction, thus alleviating allergy symptoms. But your body also uses histamines to deal with physical damage and infection, such as with common cold.

Colds can be caused by hundreds of different viruses, which don't cause the same symptoms in every person every time. While you may think of a cold as causing a cough or congestion, it's also possible that you may experience itchy eyes or a runny nose, which can mimic allergies.

Types

Many types of antihistamines are available over the counter (OTC). Several of the first-generation antihistamines cause drowsiness, but newer products are less likely to make you sleepy and have fewer side effects.

Common antihistamines include:

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

Research on Antihistamines for Colds

What doctors have learned over the years is that antihistamines seem to work for some people when they have colds, but not everyone. Research has long been mixed as to the effectiveness, as well.

It's possible that some symptoms—such as a runny nose—are caused by responses in the body that aren't related to histamine production, so antihistamines have no effect. It's also possible that some people just respond better to the medications than others.

Here's what contemporary research says about antihistamines as cold remedies:

  • A 2012 review of available research states that antihistamines are ineffective at relieving cold symptoms.
  • A 2015 review says antihistamines have a limited beneficial effect on the severity of cold symptoms for the first two days of a cold, but no benefit beyond that, and no significant effect on congestion, runny nose, or sneezing.
  • A 2019 study says that decongestants with or without antihistamines appear to be effective in adults with colds.

Something studies do generally agree on, though, is that antihistamines are safe for adults. If you want to see how these drugs impact your cold symptoms, it's likely safe for you to do so, especially if you already take an antihistamine for allergies. (Keep in mind that it's always best to check with your doctor before taking a new drug.)

Numerous studies say there's no evidence that antihistamines help relieve cold symptoms in children and point out that side effects are possible, so the risks outweigh any potential benefits.

Other Options

You have plenty of options for relieving your symptoms while waiting for a cold to run its course.

Consider what's causing your discomfort, especially if choosing between over-the-counter cold medications, some of which may have several active ingredients; it's best to use a product that treats only the symptoms you have.

You can also consider using non-medication options on their own or in addition to other remedies. For example:

  • Saline rinse/spray/drops
  • Neti pot
  • Humidifier
  • Natural and herbal cold remedies, such as zinc lozenges

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.

If you're already taking a multi-symptom cold medicine, make sure to read the ingredients list. It may already include an antihistamine, and doubling-up can be dangerous.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Updated February 11, 2019.

  2. Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):153-159.

  3. De Sutter AI, Saraswat A, Van Driel ML. Antihistamines for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(11):CD009345. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009345.pub2

  4. Degeorge KC, Ring DJ, Dalrymple SN. Treatment of the Common Cold. Am Fam Physician. 2019;100(5):281-289.

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