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Antihistamines are medicines often used to relieve symptoms of allergies, such as hay fever , hives , conjunctivitis and reactions to insect bites or stings .
Most antihistamines can be bought from pharmacies and shops, but some are only available on prescription.
This page covers:
Types of antihistamines
How to take them
Taking them with other medicines, food or alcohol
Who can take them – including pregnancy advice
How they work
There are many types of antihistamine.
They're usually divided into two main groups:
They also come in several different forms – including tablets, capsules, liquids, syrups, creams, lotions, gels, eye drops and nasal sprays.
There's not much evidence to suggest any particular antihistamine is better than any other at relieving allergy symptoms.
Some people find certain types work well for them and others do not. You may need to try more than one type to find one that works for you.
Non-drowsy antihistamines are generally the best option, as they're less likely to make you feel sleepy. But types that make you feel sleepy may be better if your symptoms affect your sleep.
Ask a pharmacist for advice if you're unsure which medicine to try. Not all antihistamines are suitable for everyone – see who can take antihistamines for more information.
Take your medicine as advised by your pharmacist or doctor, or as described in the leaflet that comes with it.
Before taking an antihistamine, you should know:
The advice varies depending on the exact medicine you're taking. If you're not sure how to take your medicine, ask your pharmacist.
Like all medicines, antihistamines can cause side effects.
Side effects of older types of antihistamines can include:
Side effects of non-drowsy antihistamines can include:
Check the leaflet that comes with your medicine for a full list of possible side effects and advice about when to get medical help.
If you think your medicine has caused an unwanted side effect, you can report it through the Yellow Card Scheme in the UK.
Speak to a pharmacist or your doctor before taking antihistamines if you're already taking other medicines.
There may be a risk the medicines could affect each other, which could stop either from working properly or increase the risk of side effects.
Examples of medicines that could cause problems if taken with antihistamines include some types of:
It's best to avoid alcohol while taking an antihistamine, particularly if you're taking an older type of antihistamine, as this can increase the chances of it making you feel sleepy.
Food and other drinks don't affect most antihistamines, but check the leaflet that comes with your medicine to make sure.
Most people can safely take antihistamines.
But speak to a pharmacist or your doctor for advice if you:
Some antihistamines may not be suitable in these cases. Your pharmacist or doctor can recommend one that's best for you.
Always read the leaflet that comes with your medicine to check it's safe for you before taking it or giving it to your child.
Antihistamines work by stopping a substance called histamine affecting the cells in your body.
Histamine is a chemical released when the body detects something harmful, such as an infection. It causes blood vessels to expand and the skin to swell (known as inflammation), which helps protect the body.
But in people with allergies, the body mistakes something harmless, such as pollen, for a threat. It then produces histamine, which causes symptoms such as rashes, a runny nose and/or sneezing.
Antihistamines help stop this happening if you take them before you come into contact with the substance you're allergic to. Or they can reduce the severity of symptoms if taken afterwards.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.