Antihistamines - Uses

What conditions are antihistamines used to treat?

Antihistamines are commonly used:

How do antihistamines work?

Histamine is a chemical naturally produced by various cells in your body. It has a variety of different functions. Large amounts of histamine are made in cells called mast cells, in places where the body comes into contact with the outside environment. For example, in the nose, throat, lungs and skin. Here, mast cells and histamine form part of your immune defence system. (Whereas, in the stomach, histamine made by cells that line the stomach helps to produce acid for food digestion.)

Your immune system cells monitor your blood and mucosae for anything (for example, germs such as bacteria or viruses) that is not made by your body. (Mucosae are membranes lining body cavities such as your mouth, nose and digestive tract.) If your skin is damaged or your immune system detects a foreign substance, histamine is released from mast cells. The histamine binds to special sites (receptors) on other cells, called H1 receptors. This sets off a chain reaction which causes blood vessels in the area to become slightly leaky. Specialised cells and chemicals, which defend your body, can now get access to the area. While this is a helpful response, it also causes redness, swelling and itching.

Allergic reactions such as hay fever (seasonal allergic rhinitis) are caused by an oversensitivity or over-reaction of the immune system to a particular allergen. An allergen is a substance that is foreign to the body and which can cause an allergic reaction in certain people. For example, pollen, dander, mould, some germs. In most people, the immune reaction to these foreign substances is normal and appropriate. But in allergic people, it is excessive. For example, in people with hay fever, contact with pollen in the nose, throat and eyes triggers the mast cells there to release much more histamine than normal. This excessive release of histamine produces the associated symptoms of itching, swelling, runny eyes, etc.

Antihistamines work by physically blocking the H1 receptors, stopping histamine from reaching its target. This decreases your body's reaction to allergens and therefore helps to reduce the troublesome symptoms associated with allergy.

Antihistamines are also used in the treatment of feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting). However, the exact way that they ease these symptoms is not fully understood. The brain has several key areas which control vomiting. It is thought that antihistamines block H1 receptors in the area of the brain which creates nausea in response to chemicals in the body.

Some antihistamines may also have what is known as an antimuscarinic effect. This means that the medicine can also block another type of receptor found on the surface of certain cells. If these receptors are affected, you may experience some of the side-effects associated with antihistamines. For example, dry mouth, blurred vision and retention of urine. These effects are mainly caused by the older first-generation antihistamines which are described below.

Note: antihistamines should not be confused with H2 blockers which reduce the production of stomach acid. While both types of medicine block the actions of histamine, they work on different receptors in different systems of the body.

Did you find this information useful?

Thanks for your feedback!

Why not subcribe to the newsletter?

We would love to hear your feedback!



Author:
Dr Mary Harding
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
9156 (v5)
Last Checked:
05 July 2017
Next Review:
04 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.