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Zyrtec vs. Claritin: How to find the right allergy medication for you
With allergy season not that far off, here's the lowdown on which over-the-counter medication you should choose.
If you’re scrolling through your allergy medication options to relieve a runny nose, congestion and sneezing, it must be spring. But with so many choices available, picking the right one can become a decision-making nightmare. Not anymore. We’re breaking down the differences between Zyrtec® and Claritin® and answering even more of your questions along the way.
What’s the difference between Zyrtec and Claritin?
Let’s start with the similarities: Zyrtec (cetirizine) and Claritin (loratadine) are both over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine medications. That means they block the effects of histamine, a chemical that your immune system releases during an allergic reaction. It’s responsible for causing all those familiar allergy symptoms: itching, sneezing, runny nose, congestion and more.
Both medications are effective, well-tolerated and good at treating allergies, says Amiinah Kung, MD. She’s an allergist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. But here’s where they differ:
“Zyrtec is found to be more potent, or stronger, in laboratory studies, compared with Claritin,” says Dr. Kung. “It also reaches a higher concentration in the skin, which can be more helpful for skin-related allergies. However, Zyrtec has a greater chance of making you sleepy while taking it.”
Because generic medications are just as effective as their name-brand versions, Dr. Kung doesn’t insist that a person use only name brands. But she often recommends Zyrtec (cetirizine) over Claritin (loratadine). Although if there is a concern about drowsiness, she recommends Claritin.
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“Benadryl is an older medication that has lots of side effects and wears off more quickly,” says Tara Carr, MD. She’s the director of the adult allergy program at Banner–University Medical Center Tucson. “It is not our preferred medication to treat daily allergy symptoms. The newer medications are usually dosed once daily and are all effective.”
When it comes to finding the best allergy medication for you, plan on some trial and error. “People sometimes need to try different options before finding the right one,” says Dr. Carr.
But don’t drive yourself crazy trying to decide which one to buy. Generally, they are interchangeable, says Dr. Kung. “They all work well and carry minimal risk,” she says. “So if one doesn’t work, it’s okay to switch to another one.”
Should you start taking an allergy medication before your symptoms start?
If you have a known history of allergies, you can start taking medication about a month before mold or pollen hits in the spring or fall. (Learn how to tell if your symptoms are from allergies, a cold, or COVID-19.)
Antihistamines work quickly to relieve symptoms — usually within a few hours, Dr. Kung says. “However, I recommend pre-dosing prior to allergy season because antihistamines also have an anti-inflammatory effect,” she explains. “This process takes time and is best activated prior to the peak of allergy season.”
(Medication isn’t the only spring essential to stock up on. Here’s what else to have on hand to keep your family healthy and safe.)
Who should consider allergy testing?
If you’re having trouble getting your symptoms under control, it’s smart to see an allergist. “Allergy testing can confirm that someone’s symptoms are actually due to an allergy rather than chronic sinusitis or some other condition,” Dr. Carr says. “The testing also helps with designing avoidance strategies, such as when someone is allergic to a pet or another indoor allergen such as mold.”
Usually, allergy testing is done via skin pricks. Solutions of different allergens are put on the skin to see if a reaction that’s similar to a mosquito bite occurs, Dr. Carr explains. “That would signal an allergy,” she says. “Allergists usually test for a panel of locally relevant pollens,” she says. “Those can be very different based on where you live.”
If you’ve tried one of the many home tests for allergies, be sure you still follow up with a doctor.
“Home tests can be variable as to what they tell you about your immune system,” Dr. Carr says. “The answer is not black and white. And the interpretation of the test should be done by an experienced person.” An allergist can determine what tests to order, as well as provide guidance about the best medications for you, she says.