The Best Allergy Medicine

Fighting allergies can feel like a war on pollen (and kittens), yet the real enemy lies within. For those of us with allergies, our immune systems overreact to pollen, animal dander, mold, and dust. It flags these as invaders and goes on the attack, releasing histamine, which in turn triggers the itchy eyes, runny nose, and congestion we all associate with the start of spring.

We talked to a trio of allergists and they all agreed: a spritz of corticosteroid up the nose is the best way to beat seasonal allergies — but oral antihistamines and, in the short term, eye drops make great backups. We scoured the research and analyzed the 37 most available pills, sprays, liquids, and drops at mainstream pharmacies to find the best symptom-relieving (and least zombifying) defense during allergy season.

Our top pick is a nasal spray because they’re simply more effective as a standalone defense. Nasacort Allergy 24 Hour’s active ingredient, triamcinolone, treats inflammation locally instead of disrupting your entire adrenal system, like some competitors. Its 24-hour formula is alcohol- and scent-free, non-drowsying, and only requires once-daily application (when needed) at $0.10 per dose.

If your poor embattled nose just can’t handle a spray, Allegra Allergy 24 Hour pills work well, too. The active ingredient, fexofenadine, is known for being non-sedating, so there’s no concern about drowsiness here. It’s also a 24-hour, one-dose-a-day option and conveniently comes in both tablet and gel cap forms. It’s more than three times the cost of Nasacort, at $0.35 per dose, but it’s ideal for a sensitive nose.

The adult doses of active ingredients are not recommended for children under 12, so Children's Allegra Allergy 12 Hour liquid is our top pick for kids with allergy symptoms. It has the same active ingredient as our Allegra Allergy 24 Hour, simply in a smaller amount (30 mg vs. 180 mg). Its 12-hour liquid formula works out at $0.45 per dose, and comes in Berry and Orange Cream flavors.

Our Picks for the Best Allergy Medicine

Best Nasal Spray
Nasacort Allergy 24 Hour
Nasacort impressed us with its ability to effectively tackle allergies while also being nice to your nose.

We crowned Nasacort king of the steroid sprays because its active ingredient, triamcinolone, effectively treats inflammation in the nose and, unlike competitors like Flonase, doesn't affect your adrenal system and the release of hormones throughout your body. In addition, Nasacort uses a water-based formula, free of alcohol and scent; according to Dr. Cavuoto Petrizzo, this makes it less likely to cause irritation in sensitive noses. At $13 for 120 doses (one spray per day at $0.10/dose; one bottle should last you through allergy season) Nasacort is also the best value of the steroid sprays.

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Best Oral Antihistamine
Allegra Allergy 24 Hour
Allegra balances strong results with few side effects.

Allegra’s third-generation antihistamine, fexofenadine, is one of a class of medicines developed with the goal of improving clinical efficacy and minimizing side effects. Indeed, in a 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers note that fexofenadine is the most consistently nonsedating of the later antihistamines. They’re so confident it won’t cause drowsiness that they specifically recommend it for “airline pilots and others in safety-critical occupations.” Allegra’s 24-hour formula is available in both a tablet and gel cap, making it a versatile option, too. At $25 for 70 doses (one tablet per day at $0.35/dose; one bottle should last just over two months), Allegra is more expensive than our top pick, but a good choice if your nose is too sensitive for a spray.

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Best for Children
Children's Allegra Allergy 12 Hour
The same active ingredient as adult Allegra, but in a child-friendly dose.

Children’s Allegra contains fexofenadine, the same active ingredient found in adult Allegra. That means no risk of drowsiness. Plus there’s ample research that it’s effective against seasonal allergies and safe for kids. It can be given to children as young as two and comes in a liquid 12-hour dose. Adults can also take it, but it has less fexofenadine than you’d probably want: 30 mg compared to the 180 mg found in adult Allegra Allergy. If your child balks at anything remotely resembling cough syrup, you can also try Allegra’s meltable tablets. These contain the same active ingredient and dosage, though they’re not recommended for children younger than six.

Children's Allegra

Others to Consider

Best Eye Drops
Alaway Antihistamine Eye Drops
If your allergies give you itchy, watery eyes, you might be better off with an eye drop allergy medicine.

At $10 for 0.34 fluid ounce, Alaway stands out as the most cost-effective eye drop for allergies. But be aware that all allergy eye drops — including this one— come with a caveat: The preservative BAK (benzalkonium chloride) helps your eyes absorb active ingredients like ketotifen, but shouldn’t be used regularly. Dr. Anna George, allergist and immunologist at The Woodlands Allergy told us, “There is a large body of evidence that BAK has toxic effects on the ocular surface that is time- and dose-dependent. Because of this, I do not recommend daily, year-round use of allergy eye drops.”

That doesn’t mean you need to steer clear of eye drops altogether. “If they’re used sporadically through the season or with random allergy encounters (like cat dander) they’re likely to be safe for most people,” Dr. George told us. In other words, use them, just not every day. And if you need to, talk to your doctor about prescription options. According to Dr. Laura Periman, ophthalmologist and leading dry eye expert, “Prescription-grade antihistamine drops are significantly more effective than OTCs and have much lower BAK levels with less need for repeat dosing.”

Best for Immediate Results
Zyrtec Prescription-Strength Allergy
If you need immediate relief from symptoms, Zyrtec is a great option.

Studies show that cetirizine, the active drug in Zyrtec, may act faster than fexofenadine by anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. However, Zyrtec is also associated with a higher incidence of drowsiness. Dr. Vanlandingham noted that some allergy sufferers choose to take 24-hour Zyrtec at night when drowsiness won’t impact them. If you do go for Zyrtec, you can choose between regular tablets, liquid gels, and quick-dissolve tabs.

Tips for Keeping Your Allergies at Bay

Allergy meds all work differently — and often better together.

Most experts tout corticosteroid nasal sprays, which work by reducing inflammation in the nose, as the best first-line defense for seasonal allergies. But depending on your allergy symptoms, a combination of treatments may be more effective than just one. If, like most people, your allergies take the form of nasal congestion, inflamed skin, and itchy eyes, a strategized treatment of nasal sprays, antihistamines, and eye drops may help provide the fastest, most effective relief.

In real life, many people take both nasal corticosteroids and antihistamines. It really depends on what symptoms are bothering you the most.

Dr. Rebecca Vanlandingham

“When compared ‘head to head’ with standard dosed antihistamines, [nasal steroids] show more benefit for people based on subjective reporting of symptoms,” says Dr. Lichtenberger, citing a 2001 study from the University of Chicago. For best results, start taking a nasal corticosteroid several weeks prior to the start of allergy season. “While their onset of action is 30 minutes, effectiveness may take several hours to days to occur. Their maximum effectiveness occurs after two to four weeks of use,” says Dr. Cavuoto Petrizzo.

Antihistamine pills have one clear advantage over nasal steroids: more rapid relief. Have you ever walked into a house with cats and swelled right up? “Antihistamines take 30 to 60 minutes to take effect and thus can be used on an as-needed basis for quick relief,” says Dr. Cavuoto Petrizzo. That said, antihistamines don’t treat congestion like corticosteroid sprays do, so many doctors suggest combining them.

Chances are that the combo of a nasal steroid spray and an oral antihistamine (or even just one of them) will alleviate dry, itchy eyes too. However, if you’re still suffering — perhaps due to an especially high pollen count — eye drops will give immediate relief while the other medicines work in the background.

Generic drugs will save you money.

Across the board, the doctors we consulted agree that generic allergy drugs work just as well as name brands — and cost much less. If you’re looking at a shelf full of generics and don’t know which to choose, start by comparing labels. Match the percentage of the active ingredient of the name brand, and then filter out anything with acetaminophen and decongestants. As a final check, make sure the box isn’t labelled with any scary-sounding warnings like “not safe for long-term use.” You can always flag a pharmacist for advice, too.

There hasn’t been a lot of research into natural remedies.

Natural remedies haven’t been extensively studied, meaning experts can’t be certain about their effectiveness. The lack of extensive research on natural remedies also means that there’s not a lot of conclusive knowledge about the long-term effects of natural remedies.

Keep in mind that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe: make sure you understand the effects and risks of main ingredients. For instance, while butterbur extract can help with nasal allergy symptoms, eating raw butterbur root is dangerous. Bitter orange (citrus aurantium), which is marketed as a decongestant, can increase the risk of heart issues, high blood pressure, and stroke. Many natural remedies contain ingredients related to ragweed — so if you suffer from ragweed allergies (and 10 to 20 percent of Americans do), be especially careful before starting any natural remedies. It’s a good idea to discuss ingredients and application methods with your doctor first, especially if you’re planning on using natural remedies long-term.

Besides pharmaceuticals and natural remedies, there are other steps you can take to alleviate your seasonal suffering: Regularly cleaning your home, especially your carpet, can help rid your home of accumulated mold, pollen, and dander. Be sure to wear goggles and a mask while cleaning your home, indoors and outdoors. If your nasal symptoms are especially bad, you can try nasal irrigation to wash out the irritants that trigger your allergies.

You don’t have to take allergy medicine for the rest of your life.

If shooting a spray up your nose or popping a pill every day just isn’t your style, you may want to ask your doctor about immunotherapy, which actually treats your allergies rather than simply suppressing the symptoms. If you don’t already know what you’re allergic to, your doctor may begin by conducting a skin or blood test. From there, they’ll start you on a course of shots, injecting the substance you’re allergic to into your bloodstream, be it oak pollen or animal dander.

Keep in mind this is a long-term treatment. “It starts out very dilute and then every week the concentration of the pollen increases for six or seven months,” says Dr. Cavuoto Petrizzo. “At that point we continue the injections once a month for two years. As your body keeps seeing these constant levels of an allergen, it learns to ignore it and ‘forgets’ that it’s allergic to it.”

Dr. Cavuoto Petrizzo says treatment is typically about 80 percent effective, and while it costs more up front than OTC meds, removing the need for allergy medication altogether will likely save you money in the long run. Plus, most PPO plans will cover between 60 and 100 percent of subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT).

Air purifiers can help with indoor allergies.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you’ve probably had days where it’s tempting not to leave the house. But research from the EPA suggests that air quality indoors is often worse than what’s outside: “Air within … buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.” An indoor air purifier can help manage your symptoms, but make sure to do your research before you buy. Some types of air purifiers can actually make your allergies worse — in particular, models that release ozone (a common allergen) or rely on negative ionic filters (which “clean” air by causing particulate matter to stick to furniture, walls, and every other exposed surface). Most experts instead recommend air purifiers that use HEPA filters, which are able to trap dander and pollen. For specific product suggestions, take a look at our review of Best Air Purifiers.

Our Allergy Medicine Review: Summed-Up

Allergy Medicine
Best for...
Nasacort Allergy 24 Hour
Nasal Spray
Allegra Allergy 24 Hour
Oral Antihistamine
Children's Allegra Allergy 12 Hour
Children