Q: When should patients start taking allergy medication – before or during their allergy season?

William Berger, MD: Patients are very often confused about when to take antihistamines or nasal corticosteroid sprays to treat their allergies. These medications used to be available only by prescription, but many are now available over the counter. And when a medication is available over the counter, patients may not have access to a physician to guide them on how to properly take it.

In most parts of the country, there are very distinct allergy seasons. In early spring, it’s tree pollen. In the late spring it’s grass pollen. And then in the fall, starting around the end of August, it’s ragweed pollen, although other weeds cause pollen problems as well.

When you’re taking allergy medications, it’s important to understand they work best when taken preventively. You should start taking them anywhere from 2-4 weeks before your allergy season begins. This should get you to the point where you are protected against pollen allergies.

These medications are designed to treat the symptoms – they are not going to cure your allergies. If you stop these medications, your allergy symptoms will come back.

If you find these medications are not effective at treating your allergy symptoms completely, you might want to consider seeing an allergist who can test you to find out the root cause of the problem.

Just like anything in medicine, when doctors know what the cause of the problem is, it’s easier to treat it. For pollen allergy, this means either having you avoid it, taking prescribing medications or undergoing allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots or tablets) to decrease your sensitivity to pollen.t

William E. Berger, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified allergist in Mission Viejo, California. He is a Distinguished Fellow and Past President (2002-03) of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).

Have a medical question? Email editor@allergyasthmanetwork.org or write to Ask the Allergist, Allergy & Asthma Network, 8229 Boone Blvd., Suite 260, Vienna, VA 22182.

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