What Women Should Know about Relieving Allergies

Allergy season is upon us. If you haven’t noticed, count yourself lucky. Unfortunately, over 35 million Americans are made aware of the arrival of the season by the onset of persistent sneezing, itching, runny noses and watery eyes. Fortunately, medications such as antihistamines are available to relieve some of the symptoms associated with allergies.

Antihistamines are the most common type of medication prescribed for the relief of allergies. They work by blocking the action of histamine, a naturally occurring chemical that is released during an allergic reaction and is responsible for producing allergy symptoms. A number of antihistamines on the market are sold as both prescription and over-the-counter medications. As with any medication, these should be taken cautiously and only as directed by your health care provider.

In recent years, studies have shown differences between men and women in the way they respond to medications. There are at least nine drugs that have possible side effects for which women are at greater risk. For example, women may be at a greater risk than men of developing a life-threatening irregular heartbeat, called torsades de pointes, after taking certain drugs. Some drugs from a variety of classes including antihistamines, antibiotics and antiarrhythmics have the potential to induce this irregular heartbeat at a greater rate in women. Recently, the antihistamines astemizole and terfenadine (generic names) were voluntarily taken off of the market after reports of serious arrhythmias were associated with taking those drugs in combination with certain other medications, such as certain antibiotics and an antifungal drug. These interactions caused reactions in the heart. Substantial evidence indicated that interactions with terfenadine and astemizole posed a greater risk of torsades de pointes in women. New antihistamines, such as fexofenadine and loratidine (generic names), are available and provide nearly all the beneficial effects of terfenadine, but do not appear to affect the heart as the misuse of terfenadine does. Other antihistamines currently available on the market do not appear to cause these cardiac risks.

While gender differences have been noted in response to many medications, few drugs have been tested solely for this purpose. Dr. Raymond Woosley, chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Georgetown University Medical School, has devoted much of his career to studying gender differences in response to medications. "More research is needed to study the gender-specific effects of all medications so that we can ensure the prescription and design of better and safer drugs for both women and men. What is the correct drug and dose for a man may not be the same for a woman," says Woosley. During allergy season, and throughout the year, it is important to talk to your doctor about all possible side effects of medications and to ensure that each drug being prescribed has been tested for safety and efficacy in both women and men.

All medications should be taken with care, and women, as the primary health decision-makers, play a critical role in ensuring that this happens. According to the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, about 30 to 50 percent of people taking medications do not use them as directed, so the agency recently launched an educational campaign on the important role that women play as caretakers of themselves and their loved ones. The campaign, Women's Health: Take Time to Care, is based on the idea that women are the principal users of medications and often administer them for family members. The campaign urges women to use medicines wisely by being aware of all of their ingredients and any warnings associated with their use, such as foods or other drugs that should not be taken while on that particular medication. More information about the campaign can be found on the FDA's Website.

Tips for Safe Medication Use:

  • Take your medication only as directed by your health care provider
  • Ask your health care provider to inform you fully about each prescription, and ask how the drug prescribed may affect other medications you are taking
  • Insist that your physician or pharmacist inform you about what to expect when you take the medicine
  • Inform your health care provider of any side effect you experience from medications
  • Do not skip taking medications
  • If you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your health care provider about what medications you can safely take
  • If you can't read your physician's prescription, ask for clarification, because your pharmacist may also have difficulty

The information from this article was derived from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Georgetown University Center for Education and Research on Therapeutics.

Copyright 2000, Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research. All rights reserved. Information provided herein is not a substitute for consultation with a medical professional. The Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research makes no representation or warranty regarding the content of this information.

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