What to Do If Your Allergy Medicine Is Not Working

There are several reasons why your allergy medicine may seem to stop working

Man blowing nose at home on couch
Allergy medicines may stop working. Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

One of the most common questions my patients ask me is if they can become immune to their allergy medication. They'll tell me that they developed an "immunity" to a certain medicine after a period of time—say, months to years—after which the allergy medicine simply stops working, and they need to change to another medicine. Could this actually happen? Possibly.

Medication Overuse and Immunity

In pharmacology, certain medicines, when overused, can stop working because the body will start making less of the receptor for that medicine.

This happens to people who overuse albuterol, a medication that treats asthma. The science behind why other allergy medicines, such as antihistamines and nasal sprays, stop working is unclear.

Surveys show that both adults and children experience the loss of effectiveness of allergy medicines. Nearly two out of every three adults report that they have stopped an allergy medicine in the past because it stopped working, typically within a matter of months. And, nearly 20 percent of adults report changing allergy medicines in the past year because the medicine stopped working. Children seem to experience a loss of effectiveness of allergy medicines as well, with nearly 10 percent changing allergy medicines in the past year, and more than one in four children needing to change nasal sprays regularly because of the benefit appears to wear off.

So, do people actually develop an immunity to allergy medicines, causing the medication to stop working?

It's doubtful, in my opinion. But there's no doubt that people seem to think that the allergy medicine loses its effectiveness, for whatever reason, which results in the need to try something else.

Reasons Why Allergy Medicines Stop Working

If you feel your allergy medication is becoming less effective, it may be because your allergy symptoms are changing or becoming worse.

When considering the efficacy of your medication, consider your symptoms now versus when you first started taking the medication. A medicine that worked for your symptoms before, say taking an antihistamine for sneezing or itchy nose, would not help symptoms of nasal congestion. Therefore, it is important to determine what your allergy symptoms are before choosing an appropriate medication.

Some people need more than one allergy medication to control all of their symptoms. Therefore, mild allergy symptoms that were controlled using one medicine might suddenly be uncontrolled if allergy symptoms worsen. I often have my allergy patients use a nasal steroid to control their daily symptoms and add an oral antihistamine or allergy eye drop for worsening symptoms. Or, if a person takes an oral antihistamine on most days to control itching and sneezing, they might find a benefit in adding an oral decongestant, such as Sudafed, for the occasional day when nasal congestion is more of a problem.

Sources:

Allergies in America: A Landmark Survey of Nasal Allergy Sufferers (Adult). Conducted by HealthSTAR Communications, Inc, in partnership with Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvales, Inc. 2006.

Pediatric Allergies in America: A Landmark Survey of Nasal Allergy Sufferers. Conducted by Schulman, Ronca and Bucuvalas, Inc. 2007.

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