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The question

I seem to have allergies all year round and suffer from watery eyes and congestion/sneezing regularly. Is taking anti-histamines regularly a bad idea?

The answer

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Allergies can cause a significant decrease in quality of life by interfering with enjoyment of everyday activities and can affect work and school performance.

As you mentioned, symptoms can include watery eyes, runny nose, congestion, and sneezing. It is a common problem that can begin at any age and symptoms vary from person to person and can change in severity throughout a person's lifetime.

Antihistamines are effective medications for allergies as they block the action of histamine, a chemical released when the body responds to something in the environment (allergen).

Increased histamine sensitizes the respiratory tract, nasal passages to these allergens which can trigger allergy symptoms when exposed. Allergies can be seasonal or they can be present year round. Allergies that last year round are commonly triggered by pet dander (shedded skin/hair from cats/dogs/birds), dust mites, fungus, or cigarette smoke.

To answer to your question, it's important to clarify how regular is your intake of anti-histamines.

If you take antihistamines now and then, when you have a flare-up of symptoms, these medications have been found to be effective and safe. It is important to note that antihistamines can cause mild side effects like dry mouth and eyes, headaches and drowsiness, although newer formulations can be less sedating.

Caution should be used if you are taking prescribed medications due to potential interactions, so check with your doctor or pharmacist. If you need to use these medications daily for long periods of time, there is a potential chance that your body can become tolerant to their effects, meaning that you may need to take larger doses for the same effect.

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For my patients who suffer from allergies, we work to get to the potential root causes of their symptoms by identifying and avoiding triggers. If it is not possible to avoid the triggers, a combination of medications may be helpful.

If you are needing daily antihistamines, I would recommend seeing your doctor to review other options that may be available to you. For those who suffer daily with symptoms that are impairing their quality of life - a referral to an allergy specialist may help to test for and identify triggers and for consideration of other treatment options such as allergy shots.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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