Treating allergic reactions


Allergic reactions are very common. Around one in four of us will experience an allergic reaction at some point in our lives. If you think you or your child are having an allergic reaction for the first time, you should see your Doctor. The reaction may have subsided by the time of your appointment, so it's a good idea to take photographs of any visible symptoms and to make notes of what you experienced.

If you've already been diagnosed with an allergy, there's a lot you can do to help manage your symptoms.

Managing an allergy

One key step to managing your allergy is to avoid coming into contact with the allergen (the substance you're allergic to) as much as possible. 

Of course, this is easier for some allergies than for others. If your reaction is triggered by eating shellfish, for example, then avoiding the allergen can be fairly straightforward. If it's triggered by a substance like airborne pollen, it might be a little trickier.

It can also be important to know how strong your reaction is to your allergen. For example, you may be able to tolerate being in the same room as a food containing peanuts, but not be able to eat that food. Or, you may be so allergic that kissing or shaking hands with someone who's eaten that food is enough to cause a reaction. 

Your Doctor or allergy clinic can give you advice on how strong your reaction is likely to be and what precautions you should take.

You can also consider a medicine to help manage symptoms.

Antihistamines for allergy

Antihistamines help reduce nasal symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing, and skin symptoms such as hives or itching. They can be taken before you're exposed to an allergen, to help prevent symptoms from starting. They can also be taken as soon as you're experiencing symptoms.

Antihistamines come in several different forms:

  • Tablets and capsules
  • Syrups and liquids
  • Creams, lotions and gels
  • Eye drops
  • Nasal sprays

There are many different antihistamines available, including some that are suitable for children. Some are only available on prescription. 

Some of the older antihistamine medicines are known to cause sleepiness as a side effect. The newer antihistamines are less likely to cause this side effect, but it's still possible you may feel drowsy after taking them. This is particularly important to bear in mind if you need to drive, to operate machinery, or work in a job where it's very important you're not feeling drowsy. 

Responses to antihistamine medicines can vary from person to person, and it may take a number of attempts to find an antihistamine that works well for you. 

Talk to your pharmacist or Doctor for advice about which ones may be suitable for you, and always read the label and patient information leaflet carefully before taking a new medicine. If you're pregnant, always ask your pharmacist or Doctor for advice before taking any kind of medicine.

Decongestants for allergy

Decongestants can help relieve a blocked nose caused by an allergic reaction. Most decongestants can be bought from your pharmacist. They're available in a number of different forms:

  • Tablets and capsules
  • Nasal sprays
  • Syrups and liquids
  • Dissolvable powders that make a hot drink

They can also be found in combination with other ingredients, such as pain relief medicines or antihistamines, to make an 'all-in-one' medicine.

Most decongestants aren't suitable for children. They should not be given to children under the age of six, and should only be given to children under 12 if your Doctor or pharmacist has advised this. They're also not suitable for people with certain medical conditions. Your pharmacist will be able to advise if a decongestant may be appropriate for you.

If you are taking an 'all-in-one' medicine, it's important to check the ingredients as many contain paracetamol. These should not be taken with other medicines containing paracetamol, as taking too much paracetamol can be harmful. 

Decongestants aren't usually suitable for long-term use and should not be used for more than seven days. So, if you find you are still experiencing symptoms after a few days, talk to your pharmacist or make an appointment with your Doctor.

Emollients for allergy

Emollients are moisturising creams or lotions that can help soothe the skin and keep it hydrated, when it’s red and itchy due to an allergic reaction. There are many available, and you may have to use several different creams to find the one that's most suitable for you. These are available over-the-counter and your pharmacist can give you advice on them.

Steroids for allergy

Steroids, also called corticosteroids, are medicines that help reduce itching and inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. They're available as creams, ointments or lotions for the skin, as sprays for nasal use, as eye-drops, as well as tablets and inhalers. Corticosteroids are not the same as anabolic steroids, which are sometimes misused by athletes or bodybuilders.

Nasal sprays and mild steroid creams can be bought from your pharmacist. Tablets, inhalers, eye drops and strong creams must be prescribed by your Doctor. 

Adrenaline auto-injectors for allergy 

If you’re at risk of experiencing a very severe allergic reaction (also called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock), you may be prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector. 

You should carry your auto-injector with you at all times and make sure it can be easily found by others if needed. 

Make sure you're familiar with how to use it. It's a good idea to talk to people close to you (such as family members or work colleagues) to let them know you carry an auto-injector, and to show them how to use it.

If your child is prescribed an auto-injector, always ensure anyone who's looking after them knows they carry an auto-injector, and ask them to check the instructions so they know how to use it if necessary. 

If you have a reaction and need to use your auto-injector, you or the person looking after you must also call an ambulance, immediately after using the auto-injector, and mention that you have anaphylaxis. Your severe reaction may return as your auto-injector wears off.

Check the expiry date on your auto-injector and ensure you replace it before this date.

Next steps

  • If you think you're experiencing the symptoms of an allergic reaction for the first time, see your Doctor
  • If you've been diagnosed with an allergy and are considering a medicine to help manage your symptoms, talk to your pharmacist for advice
  • If you've been prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector, make sure to carry it with you at all times and know how to use it correctly