What do I need to know about decongestants?

When You Take Decongestants

  • Decongestants are generally a safe way to treat nasal allergies.
  • They can be purchased over the counter or by prescription.
  • If the decongestant you take isn't working, talk with your doctor. Another one may work for you.

When you have an allergic reaction, your body traps allergens by bringing more blood to the lining of the nose. Inflammation and swelling occur. This causes more mucus production. The combination of inflammation, swelling, and mucus causes nasal congestion and limits air flow.

Decongestants relieve stuffy noses and make it easier for you to breathe. They are a relatively safe medication when used to treat nasal allergies, and they work even if you take them after you've been exposed to an allergen. Decongestants are available both over the counter and by prescription, and there are many different types and combinations. You can even get medications that are a combination of decongestants and antihistamines. If the decongestant you use doesn't work, talk to your pharmacist or doctor. There are many varieties from which to choose.

Serious Side Effects

One of the most dangerous side effects of decongestants is that they can make existing heart problems worse. So always let your doctor know if you have high blood pressure or heart disease. And, if you've been diagnosed with either of these two medical problems, don't take decongestants without first discussing it with your doctor.

How Do I Take Decongestants?

Decongestants are available as tablets, nasal sprays, or drops. Nasal sprays or drops deliver medicine directly into your nose. They can provide almost instant temporary relief of nasal congestion.

Oral decongestants take more time to reduce congestion because they have to be swallowed and absorbed by the body. They start working after about an hour or two.

Decongestant tablets are the best form to use if you need symptom relief for more than a few days.

In general, you can get decongestants either as nasal sprays or drops or in tablet form. The following chart shows you the pros and the cons of the different types.

Type of Decongestant Pro Con
Nasal spray/drops Immediate relief Can only use for a few days; be careful not to overuse
Delivers medicine directly to nose; easy to use Rebound effect
Effective right after exposure to allergen Continued use can cause a stuffy nose that doesn't clear and irritate the inside of the nose
Oral tablets Effective for longer periods of time Takes 1 hour or more to be effective
More problems with restlessness, nervousness, insomnia
Shouldn't be taken by people with heart problems, diabetes, enlarged prostate, or high blood pressure, or by nursing mothers or those taking beta-blockers (blood pressure and heart medication)

To learn more about decongestants, refer to the next few articles on the issues that most interest you.

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