Decongestant vs. Antihistamine: Which Should You Take?

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decongestant vs antihistamine

When you are sick or not feeling well, you want to take something and get back to normal quickly. But, how do you know what medication is best for your symptoms?

Runny nose. Check.
Cough. Check.
Head congestion. Chest congestion. Sore throat. Fever. This list of cold symptoms could go on and on.

What medication should you take?

Seasonal colds, allergies, the flu, and now even Covid-19, have similar symptoms. Over-the-counter medications can help treat your symptoms and get you back on your feet. For these illnesses, most OTC medications include decongestants, antihistamines, or a combination.

What is the difference between a decongestant and an antihistamine?

When should you take decongestants or antihistamines?

Can you take decongestants and antihistamines together?

Keep reading to learn more about the differences, uses, and effects of decongestants and antihistamines.

What Is the Difference Between Decongestants and Antihistamines?

Although both are found in the OTC medication section at your local pharmacy, grocery store, or Target, decongestants and antihistamines address different targeted symptoms.

What Is a Nasal Decongestant?

Just as the name states, a nasal decongestant relieves nasal congestion including a stuffy nose or runny nose. Congestion occurs when mucus blocks the nasal passages and when the blood vessels lining the nose become enlarged.

Congestion is often caused by common colds, upper respiratory infections, or allergies. Most decongestants work by shrinking the blood vessels so you can breathe more easily. Nasal sprays are commonly used decongestants.

What is an Antihistamine?

A histamine is a chemical created by your immune system. When a histamine overreacts to an allergen, it causes symptoms of an allergic reaction such as sneezing and coughing.

Antihistamines can be prescription or over-the-counter medications that target the symptoms of an allergic reaction. “Anti” means “against” so the medication works to block or work against the histamine reaction. They may also treat the symptoms of the allergic reaction as well as some cold, anxiety, or other problems.

Antihistamines are broken into two categories. H-1 blockers treat allergy symptoms while H-2 blockers treat symptoms of acid reflux, nausea, vomiting, and motion sickness.

When to Take Decongestants and Antihistamines

Now that you understand the differences between the two medications, when should you take one over the other? Is one better for certain illnesses or symptoms than the other?

Should You Take a Decongestant or an Antihistamine?

Decongestants and antihistamines will not cure your cold or seasonal allergies. However, they can ease your symptoms giving you relief from that runny nose.

Over-the-counter antihistamines are available as pills, nasal sprays, or eye drops. They treat itching, sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, and postnasal drip. While they can work to ease your symptoms, antihistamines work best when taken BEFORE you have a reaction.

Decongestants are available as pills, liquids, or nasal sprays. Avoid using the sprays for more than three days as they can make your symptoms harder to treat.

Antihistamines such as Benadryl may cause drowsiness and can be hard to take during the day. On the other hand, decongestants can keep you awake. Decongestants cannot be taken by patients with high blood pressure or heart problems.

Can You Take a Decongestant and Antihistamine Together?

Yes, decongestants and antihistamines can be taken together. In fact, some medications already combine them to help cover more of your symptoms. These usually end in -D such as Claritin-D. 

Both medications can be safely used separately or together.

Do Antihistamines Help With Congestion?

Antihistamines cannot treat every symptom, but they can help with nasal congestion. They help by relieving your runny nose and sneezing caused by colds or allergies

Can You Take a Decongestant or Antihistamine for Covid-19?

OTC pain medications can be used to relieve your fever or discomfort caused by Covid. While cough and cold medications may be safe, it is best to speak with your family doctor about how to treat your Covid-19 symptoms.

Talk to Your Primary Care Physician

If you still have questions about decongestants, antihistamines, or OTC cold and allergy medications, speak with your primary care doctor in Mooresville, NC. Your family physician can provide guidance on the best medications, over-the-counter or prescription, for your condition.

Dr. Katherine Weeks is a board-certified physician. Blue Skies Family Medicine is a direct primary care practice that offers high-quality medical care with a personal touch.

Contact Blue Skies Family Medicine

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Weeks, contact Blue Skies Family Medicine in Mooresville today!

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