Hay fever: how to treat it and where to get the cheapest hay fever tablets - Which? (2023)

Hay fever season can cause misery for sufferers, but there are a range of medicines and treatments which can help to get symptoms under control.

We've talked to Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's English Pharmacy Board, to find out what you can do to reduce the misery of allergy symptoms.

Our pricing research also reveals the cheapest ways to get hold of popular hay fever tablets and medicines to help you save on your summer essentials.

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Hay fever symptoms

If you've got a stuffy or runny nose, itchy eyes and can't stop sneezing, you could be suffering from hay fever. The main symptoms are:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Itchy, watery or red eyes
  • Loss of smell
  • Pain around the temples and forehead
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Tiredness

Those with asthma might also have a tight chest, shortness of breath, and wheezing and coughing.

When is hay fever season?

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According to ENT UK - the professional organisation representing ear, nose and throat surgery - hay fever (or seasonal allergic rhinitis) can actually be problematic for most of the year, depending on what you're allergic to.

While the majority of hay fever sufferers are allergic to grass pollen, which tends to peak in summer months, some people are allergic to both tree and grass pollen - which can mean having symptoms for much of the spring and summer months.

Tree pollen:March to April

Grass pollen: May to July

Weed pollen: June to August

Mould spores: September to October

The Met Office has said that climate change may lengthen the UK pollen season and potentially make pollen concentrations higher.

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Hay fever medicines: what are your options?

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There are lots of options for treating hay fever, and what's best depends on what suits you and your needs, as well as what your main symptoms are.

You can usually take oral tablets alongside symptom-specific solutions such as nose sprays and eye drops, if your symptoms are particularly bothersome.

Other medication you’re on also needs to be taken into account. For example, some older types of antidepressant, stomach ulcer or indigestion medicines or cough and cold remedies shouldn’t be taken with antihistamines. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Antihistamine tablets

There are a couple of different active ingredients found in common OTC (over the counter) hay fever tablets and liquids. They all work by altering the way your body reacts to histamine - the chemical your body releases when it thinks it’s being attacked by a harmful substance and the substance that gives rise to hay fever symptoms.

Most hay fever tablets are pretty tiny, though you can get oral antihistamines in liquid formats too if you struggle with swallowing pills (or for children).

The two most common ones you'll see on the shelf are generally well-tolerated with minimal side-effects. They are:

  • Cetirizine hydrochloride / dihydrochloride

This is a non-drowsy antihistamine, generally taken once a day.

Brand names include Benadryl Allergy One A Day, Piriteze Allergy and Zirtec Allergy - found in tablet and liquid form - but generic options are also widely available.

Some people shouldn’t use cetirizine hydrochloride medicines, including those who have an intolerance to or can’t absorb some sugars such as lactose or sorbitol and people who have an allergy to food additives E218 or E216.

  • Loratadine

Loratadine is a non-drowsy antihistamine that’s available OTC and on prescription. Brand names include Clarityn Allergy but there are plenty of generic and own-brand options available, too, in tablet or liquid form.

Other oral antihistamines include:

  • Chlorphenamine maleate

Hay fever used to be regularly treated with antihistamines such as chlorphenamine and acravistine.

Although these older types of antihistamine are still available, they tend to cause drowsiness and can impact your performance, for example if you are driving or taking exams.

Chlorphenamine is not suitable for some people, including those with epilepsy or another health problem that puts you at risk of fits, and those with the eye problem primary angle closure glaucoma.

They also need to be taken several times a day, which some people may find inconvenient. However, Thorrun Govind suggests chlorphenamine could be a good option if your hay fever is preventing you from sleeping.

  • Fexofenadine hydrochloride

Fexofenadine hydrochloride - brand name Allevia - is an antihistamine that GPs have been able to prescribe for some time. However, it's now available over-the-counter at pharmacies and other retail outlets, although it isn't particularly widely available.

Govind says: 'It gives hay fever and allergy sufferers another treatment option, which is especially helpful if they find existing medications aren't quite working for them.'

Nasal sprays for hay fever

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There are several types on the market, including steroid (or corticosteroid) nasal spray such as fluticasone (eg Pirinase or Flixonase) or beclometasone/beclomethasone (eg Beconase), to dampen down inflammation inside your nose.

Some OTC nasal sprays contain both a corticosteroid and an antihistamine in one preparation.

Saline sprays and barrier sprays are also available. These aren’t medicated but either help to wash away trapped allergens or act as a barrier to them, thereby helping to reduce symptoms.

Hay fever eye drops

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The active ingredient in these tends to be sodium cromoglicate, which inhibits the release of histamine. It also has anti-inflammatory properties to soothe red, inflamed eyes.

Some eye drops don't contain antihistamines, but instead ingredients intended to soothe and lubricate the eyes, such as witch hazel and glycerin.

Wearers of soft contact lenses need to take extra care if using drops containing benzalkonium chloride (a preservative) because it’s been reported that it can cause eye irritation, dry eye symptoms and may affect the tear film and surface of the cornea.

Hay fever medication in pregnancy

Medication is only advised if you have hay fever symptoms (rather than taking them preventatively) and instead, treatment should start with using sodium chloride nasal sprays or nasal irrigation followed by eye drops such as sodium cromoglicate eye drops or intranasal corticosteroid sprays.

Only if symptoms persist should oral antihistamines be used but you should always speak to your doctor first.

Hay fever medication and children

When it comes to children over the age of one and hay fever medication, you may find it easier to give them a liquid antihistamine. The amount given depends on how old they are - you'll find the dosage information on the packaging.

How to save money on hay fever remedies

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Choose own-brand or generic options

By far the biggest savings can be made by switching from branded to own-brand or generic products. Generic antihistamines use the same active ingredients and we've found they can be up to 10 times cheaper.

Generic medicines in the UK must comply with exactly the same standards of quality, safety and efficacy as all medicinal products, so there's no difference in the main action of branded and generic versions of the same medicine.

Govind explains: 'The main difference may be the 'excipients' - the added things that make the tablet taste how it does or how the ingredients bind together but the active ingredients are the same and they work in the same way.'

Where to find the cheapest hay fever medicine

Our research has repeatedly shown that switching to generic or own-brand options, particularly in supermarkets or discount stores, can save you money.

We checked the prices of two common types of antihistamine tablets in pharmacies, supermarkets and discount stores in April 2022, and this still rings true.

Common antihistamine tablets can cost less than £1 for a pack of 30, to as much as £10 for the same amount.

The cheapest tablets we found were generally at discount stores like Wilko, or budget supermarkets like Asda.

But there are also cheap generic options to be found at Boots.

During hay fever season, many stores put common remedies on offer - so look out for these and don't buy branded products full price.

See our story on how to save on hay fever medicine for more details.

Shop in discount stores

When we last checked prices, we found cetirizine hydrochloride antihistamine tablets for 89p for 30 in B&M - 3p per tablet. This is a quarter of the price of the generic variety found in Boots - and under a tenth of the price of the market leader.

This is great if you know what you need, but if you're in any doubt about what meds might be best for you, head to a pharmacy for clarification.

Take advantage of multibuys, deals and bundles

There are economies of scale when buying hay fever meds and you’ll find that many retailers offer deals - especially in the summer months, which may mean you can make savings.

For example, although Piriteze is usually around £10 for 30 tablets, many supermarkets sometimes have it on sale for £7.

Some retailers offer bundles, too, which can include three months' supply of antihistamines, a nasal spray and eye drops, which reduces the overall price considerably.

...but only buy what you need

If you don’t regularly get hay fever but want to be prepared, don't get too over-enthusiastic about stocking up.

Thorrun Govind says: 'There's absolutely no problem with buying medicines and storing them but you should also be aware that as well as making sure they're in date when you use them next year, your health situation may have changed and therefore they might not be appropriate for you to use any more.'

Look for the longest expiry date on any medication you buy, and check before you use old packs you find at home.

Products such as nose sprays and eye drops have a relatively short shelf life once opened (often four to six weeks). Store your medications in a cool, dry, lockable place away from children.

Plan ahead

Buying from a convenience store or local supermarket is handy if you're in a hurry, but most tend to only stock branded varieties and with no multibuy offers, so you'll probably end up paying more.

For better deals, head to larger stores or pharmacies when you can.

If buying online, make sure it's from trusted sources

These include supermarkets and registered pharmacies.

Find out more about buying medicines safely online - including how to check that an online pharmacy is registered on the General Pharmaceutical Council website.

Get the best from your hay fever medicine

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It's one thing having the right medication but it's important to use it properly, too, for maximum effect.

  • Start using before your symptoms begin.This might be as early as February, when it could still be wintry and cold outside, but it won't be long before the start of the tree pollen season in March
  • Use medication regularly during high season if you are prone to hay fever. Use it preventatively, not just reactively to keep symptoms at bay.
  • Keep well stocked up. If your regular meds are running low, allow time to replenish supplies and to order and collect any repeat prescriptions.
  • Switch up your meds. If you find that your regular medication isn't working as well, try a different formulation. If you’re running out of treatment options, see your doctor to work out what to do next.

What about natural or drug-free hay fever treatments?

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If you don’t want to go the conventional medicine route for treating hay fever, there are an increasing number of 'drug-free' options you can try.

Where pharmaceutical remedies tend to work inside the body to reduce histamine production and to settle inflammation, natural remedies tend to work externally to provide a barrier against allergens in the nasal passages or to flush them out.

These might be worthwhile for those with mild symptoms, or if you're having issues with side-effects from conventional medicines. They can also be handy if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or already taking a medication that interacts with antihistamines.

Some people also swear by things such as eating local honey but studies show there is no evidence for this being effective.

Do natural hay fever remedies really work?- we take a look at different options available, what they do and what the evidence says

Tips for minimising hay fever misery

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As well as medicines and remedies, there are lifestyle and environment changes you can make to relieve hay fever symptoms, particularly when the pollen count is high:

  • Keep windows closed in the evening. Pollen can make its way inside through open windows and vents. Keeping windows closed, particular at times when the pollen count is high - first thing in the morning and during the evening - can help. Using an air purifier may also help.
  • Keep house dust mites at bay.House dust mite allergies can be associated with hay fever and asthma symptoms but the trouble is they are microscopic and therefore hard to detect. As they gravitate to beds and humid environments, it’s advisable to wash your bedding weekly at 60°C or above to ensure you’ve killed them.
  • Don’t hang washing outside.As pollen wafts around, it can fall onto your washing then when you take it off the line and inside you'll be bringing the pollen in with you.
  • Shower and change your clothes when you get home.When you close your front door you may think you’re shutting pollen out but you could still be bringing it in on your hair and clothing.
  • Use a DIY barrier balm. You could buy a specialist balm to apply to your nostrils to help prevent pollen entering your nose but a simple petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) can be just as effective.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom.Pet hair can be a carrier of airborne allergens such as pollen so don’t let your pets sleep on your bed or even in your bedroom. Pets can bring pollen in on their fur after they’ve been outside, too, so give them a wash down as well, especially if your hay fever is particularly severe. Buying a vacuum cleaner that makes light work of pet hairs is also a good option
  • Keep a diary of symptoms.Thorrun Govind says that if you keep track of when your symptoms are worse, if anything makes them better and how effective your medication is, this will give your pharmacist and GP valuable information about your allergy - and enable them to better tailor your treatment to suit your individual needs.

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What to do if high street hay fever remedies aren’t working

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If over-the-counter remedies aren't working for you and you're really struggling with your symptoms, pay a visit to your GP.

They should be able to prescribe something more powerful, and if these don't work they can refer you to an allergy specialist for tests. The tests performed will depend on your type of allergy but can include a blood test or a skin prick test, which will help to throw light on which allergens are causing you problems.

If you are sent for specialist tests, you'll be given instructions on what to do but you shouldn't take antihistamines beforehand as this may mask the results.

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