Is America Over-Medicating on Allergy Medicine?

If you suffer from seasonal allergies to pollen (also called hay fever), you may be familiar with allergy medication or have taken it in the past. According to the CDC, hay fever is one of the most common allergic diseases. As allergy season seems to get worse every year, the need for allergy drugs becomes more apparent. This only compounds the need for allergy medication to treat year-round allergies not limited to pollen, which can include respiratory allergies to pet dander, dust or mold, for example.

Top over the counter allergy drugs
Top 7 over-the-counter allergy drugs by revenue in the US (2016)
Source: Statista

Itchy red eyes, nasal congestion and disturbed sleep are not just an inconvenience—respiratory allergy symptoms can affect your well-being and performance in work or school. Naturally, you and your family may join the 75% of American allergy sufferers who take medication to relieve their symptoms.

You may have heard of the popular antihistamine medication Zyrtec—the #1 allergy drug in America in 2016. Sales of blockbuster allergy drugs like Zyrtec have skyrocketed to meet the growing demand. The health conglomerate Johnson & Johnson (J&J) raked in $348 million in revenue just from Zyrtec sales in 2016. The runner-up, Flonase, fell close behind at $332 million (see Graph 1 above).

The myriad of allergy medicines today

It can be challenging for consumers to figure out which allergy medicine to choose. With most allergy medications designed to relieve a similar range of symptoms, it has become increasingly difficult for consumers to determine which medicine is right for them.

A few of the most popular types of allergy medications on the market today are:

  • Antihistamines – There are a variety of antihistamines on the market, including loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), cetirizine (Zyrtec) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl). These medications are designed to block the action of symptom-causing histamines in your body. Antihistamines can be taken as pills or as a nasal spray.
  • Corticosteroids – Corticosteroids are often recommended as one of the first lines of defense against allergy symptoms. They are typically taken in the form of a nasal spray, allowing you to apply topical treatment directly to the area most affected by your allergies.
  • Decongestant nasal drops and sprays – Decongestants are used to reduce inflammation in the nose and sinus cavity, making it easier for you to breathe through your nose once again.

Pharmaceutical marketing can make it seem like you need to use an array of medicines to keep your allergies in check, but you should listen to your body—and your doctor—to find out which type of medication is best for your symptoms.

Big Pharma, big-budget advertising

TV Advertising Allergy Medicine
TV ad spending for top allergy medications in 2015 Source: FiercePharma

Many TV commercials advertise popular allergy brands. In fact, pharmaceutical companies spent millions of dollars on TV advertising in 2015. GlaxoSmithKline spent $73 million on advertising Flonase, which was a little over 20% of the sales revenue they earned the following year. Other drug makers also spent millions on TV ads in 2015 (see Graph 2 above). This data does not include advertisements placed in physicians’ offices, drugstores or newspapers.

Another pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, spent over $58 million in 2015 to advertise their antihistamine, Claritin. This advertising budget was equal to over 24% of their 2016 revenue. Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of Zyrtec, the highest-grossing allergy medicine in the U.S. in 2016, spent over $33 million the previous year in television advertising.

With more Americans turning to allergy medicines for symptom relief every year, it is no wonder that pharmaceutical companies are quick to spend money to familiarize more consumers with their brand name. It makes even more sense when you consider that advertisements may actually increase the perceived effectiveness of medications, according to one 2013 study.

More Americans are buying allergy medication every year

Increase Number of People Allergy Medicine
Visual 3 caption: Increase in number of people who bought allergy medication in the US (2008 – 2017) Source: Statista

You may have heard that an increasing number of people are buying allergy medication. This is a fact—the number of people who bought allergy medication grew by 25% (an increase of 18 million) from 2008 to 2017 (see Graph 3). The reason for the growing demand could be that there is a general trend of more people being diagnosed with seasonal allergies. According to the CDC, 16 million adults and 5.5. million children were diagnosed with seasonal allergies from 2015 to 2016.

People also have greater access to allergy medications. Flonase was available by prescription only until 2014, when it transitioned to over-the-counter, while the antihistamine Allegra made the switch in 2011. An increase of people with seasonal allergies, as well as greater access to allergy medications, could mean that more people than ever are buying allergy medication to treat their symptoms. Ultimately, growing demand for allergy medication means America may have become more dependent on medication.

Concerns over long-term use of allergy medicines

You may know someone who swears by their list of allergy medications, ready to advise anyone that complains of a runny nose or itchy throat. However, many people are uncomfortable with the thought of relying on a lengthy regimen of medications to combat chronic allergy symptoms and wonder if it is healthy to take allergy medications on a regular basis.

Although allergy relief medications may offer much-needed help when allergy symptoms keep you from living your life to the fullest, long-term use of these medications may not be the best option. If the high cost of staying stocked up on allergy medicine does not inspire you to search for practical alternatives, the potential side effects might.

  • Side effects of antihistamines can include drowsiness, dry mouth and constipation. In children, antihistamines can cause restlessness, nightmares and irritability.
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays can sometimes cause nosebleeds, as well as nasal dryness and irritation.
  • Decongestants can cause increased blood pressure or heart rate, as well as nervousness and difficulty sleeping. If taken longer than recommended (five to seven days), decongestant nasal drops and sprays can cause “rebound rhinitis,” meaning a worsening of your nasal congestion that can cause decongestant dependence.

It is best to discuss the right medication for you or need for prescription allergy medicine with your physician.

Alternatives to over-medicating on allergy medicine

Here is what Big Pharma probably does not want you to know: Medication may not be the only way to relieve symptoms. You can also help alleviate symptoms by making them less likely to happen in the first place. The best way to do that is to get rid of the allergens that cause your symptoms. This may include avoiding as much pollen as you can if you have a pollen allergy. Or if you are allergic to substances like mold or dust mite allergens, then preventing conditions like excess humidity may help.

What may help with pollen allergies

Avoiding pollen may seem impossible. Pollen is everywhere outside, and it is easy to track pollen indoors, where it can continue to trigger your symptoms. Did you know that pollen levels in your house may even be higher than pollen levels outdoors? To help reduce the amount of pollen that you bring into your home, try:

  • Wiping down clothes, bags and pets before entering your home
  • Changing your clothes when you get home
  • Washing your clothes, sheets and other washable fabrics regularly to prevent the buildup of pollen in the fabrics
  • Keeping your windows closed, especially at night
  • Keeping your floors and household surfaces clean and free of dust

To learn more about how an air purifier can help with indoor allergies, read our article, “Air Purifiers and Indoor Air Quality: What to Look For.”

To lessen your exposure to pollen while outdoors, try saving any outdoor activities for the afternoons or after it rains, when pollen counts are lower. You should also avoid mowing the lawn or doing yard work when possible.

Getting rid of the pollen inside your home, and decreasing your exposure to pollen outdoors, may help with your allergies over the course of allergy season.

What may help with mold or dust mite allergies:

Many people are allergic to mold or dust mites, in addition or instead of pollen. These allergens may also cause common respiratory symptoms year-round. Common suggestions to prevent excess mold or dust mite allergen exposure include:

  • Keeping humidity between 30-50% to avoid damp conditions that foster more growth of dust mites and mold
  • Removing any visible mold from your home as soon as you spot it to keep spores from being released into the air
  • Fixing any water leaks to prevent mold growth as a result of damp conditions
  • Cleaning regularly to avoid accumulation of dust and other allergens that can foster dust mite growth
  • Reducing levels of dust mite allergens in bed linen and mattresses with recommended laundry measures
  • Using an air purifier to help remove mold, dust mite and other allergens in the air.

Our solution

People often recommend an air purifier to help lower levels of indoor air pollutants. Not all air purifiers are the same in delivering clean air in your home. The Molekule air purifier can destroy pollutants like pollen and mold, which have a seasonal aspect. Yet the Molekule (PECO) technology will also destroy other allergens you will find year round, like dust mites and pet dander, for better air quality at any time of the year.

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Catherine Poslusny is an experienced writer and content marketing strategist based in Oklahoma City. She has written for tech and healthcare brands since 2016, focusing on companies that prioritize healthcare accessibility and inclusivity. Catherine has written extensively about air quality, medical procedures, healthcare costs and insurance, and reproductive health. You can find her at catherinerosewrites.com.