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Decongestants for Allergic Rhinitis

Examples

Many over-the-counter decongestants are available. The following are a few examples:

Generic Name Brand Name
oxymetazoline Afrin
phenylephrine  
pseudoephedrine Sudafed

Decongestants are available as nasal sprays, liquids, and pills.

In some areas, medicines containing pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed) are kept behind the pharmacist's counter or require a prescription. You may need to ask the pharmacist for it or have a prescription from your doctor to buy the medicine.

How It Works

Decongestants narrow blood vessels, reducing the blood supply to nasal mucous membranes. This reduces stuffy and runny noses.

  • Pill decongestants narrow blood vessels not only in the nose but also in other parts of the body, which can cause side effects such as high blood pressure and nervousness.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays narrow blood vessels only in the nose and not in other parts of the body, so they rarely cause the side effects that pill decongestants do.
  • You can use nasal decongestant sprays only for a few days. If you use them longer than this, your nasal congestion may get worse (rebound congestion). Using a nasal decongestant continually to avoid rebound congestion can result in dependence on the medicine.

Why It Is Used

You can use decongestants for a stuffy or runny nose caused by allergic rhinitis.

How Well It Works

Nasal spray decongestants work within about 10 minutes and may provide relief for up to 12 hours. Pill decongestants work within 30 minutes and may provide relief for up to 6 hours.

Decongestants do not help sneezing or itching. But some pill decongestants are combined with an antihistamine to help sneezing and itching. Examples include Allerest and Actifed. These medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Before you use them, check the label.

Side Effects

All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Call your doctor if you have:

  • Hives.
  • Fast or pounding heartbeat.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Difficult or painful urination.
  • Headache.

Common side effects of this medicine include:

  • Nervousness or restlessness.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Increased blood pressure.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Decongestant nasal sprays should be used only for short periods of time (not more than 3 days in a row).

Many over-the-counter medicines for other health problems, such as some diet pills, contain decongestants. To avoid a possible overdose, do not take two medicines containing decongestants at the same time.

Be careful with these medicines. They may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems, so check the label first. If you do use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and weight.

Instead of or along with using medicine, you can buy or make saltwater (saline) nasal sprays to help clear up a stuffy nose.

Taking medicine

Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

Advice for women

If you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant, do not use any medicines unless your doctor tells you to. Some medicines can harm your baby. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. And make sure that all your doctors know that you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant.

Checkups

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Rohit K Katial, MD - Allergy and Immunology
Last Revised June 17, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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