Doctors sometimes prescribe a drug for use outside of its listed purposes, especially if it looks safe and they believe it will be effective. This off-label use is common with many classes of drugs. That includes antihistamines, which have emerged as a promising way to treat short-term anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychological conditions in the United States. This large class of conditions includes many specific disorders and affects an estimated 32% of American adults at least once in their lives. Often, this is a short-term issue. Many people experience bouts of anxiety, disturbed sleep or restlessness for 12 months or less. In these cases, certain antihistamine drugs have shown promising results for the off-label treatment of anxiety disorders.
Although the literature shows a link between antihistamines and anxiety treatment, the FDA hasn’t approved every antihistamine for this use. Only a doctor can give medical advice, and you should always consult with one before adjusting a course of medication. This is true even for over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl. Antihistamines aren’t an approved treatment for anxiety that lasts more than 12 months. They’re also not for use with serious psychotic or other disorders that require specialized care from a psychiatrist.
What Are Antihistamines?
Antihistamines are a class of drugs used to treat allergies and the symptoms of cold and flu. Usually available over the counter, these drugs work by suppressing some elements of the body’s natural immune system. The irritating symptoms associated with allergies are usually caused by a type of protein in the bloodstream called histamine. By blocking this chemical’s action, antihistamines can limit the negative effects of allergies and respiratory viruses.
Benadryl is a leading brand of over-the-counter antihistamines. Its active ingredient is diphenhydramine, which can dry out the sinuses and prevent watery eyes. Off-label, Benadryl and its generic competitors can be used to treat motion sickness. Because diphenhydramine acts as a sedative, it can also be helpful for very short-term treatment of insomnia, ideally for a single night.
Benadryl has a shortlist of side effects, These are usually minor and go away on their own. Some rare symptoms can be serious and signal the need for medical attention. Relatively mild side effects include:
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Constipation or upset stomach
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth/nose/throat
Many people who use Benadryl experience no noticeable side effects at all. Some effects are potentially serious, however. Call your doctor for advice immediately if you experience mood or mental changes, difficulty passing urine, or a fast/irregular heartbeat.
Like Benadryl, hydroxyzine is an antihistamine. It has sedative properties and is frequently used off-label for many conditions. These include insomnia, nausea, vomiting, itching, and skin rashes. Unlike Benadryl, hydroxyzine has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of anxiety.
Hydroxyzine is available by prescription under the brand name Vistaril. It comes as a liquid oral suspension and may be taken daily for up to four months to treat anxiety. If your anxiety symptoms last longer than this, speak with your doctor about whether to continue taking the medicine. Don’t change the dose or discontinue Vistaril without first consulting with your doctor or pharmacist.
Some drugs have negative interactions with hydroxyzine. You may not be able to take it if you’re also taking drugs that cause drowsiness. This includes sleeping pills, narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxants, or a benzodiazepine such as Xanax. It’s potentially dangerous to take hydroxyzine at the same time as certain other drugs. These include antidepressants, heart medicine, antipsychotics, and various drug cocktails used to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and cancer.
Treating Anxiety Disorders
Taking any medication is always a balancing act between the positive and negative effects of the drug. Taking antihistamines to treat anxiety and depression can be effective, but there are some drawbacks to consider. Major advantages of using commonly available antihistamines are their generally lower cost and easier availability than prescription anxiety drugs. Antihistamines are also generally less likely to cause dependence and addiction than other sedatives.
Antihistamines can be helpful over short time frames when used in conjunction with the nonmedical therapy you’re getting. It’s relatively easy to get some antihistamines, especially Benadryl. This encourages many people who prefer to avoid prescription drugs to use them instead. It may be preferable to neglecting to get any treatment at all for anxiety and depression.
Taking antihistamines for off-label purposes isn’t without drawbacks, though. Most antihistamines are known to cause drowsiness during the day. This may be a problem for people who operate heavy machinery or otherwise have to remain alert. These drugs also aren’t effective for severe anxiety or depression, and they’re not a long-term treatment for any anxiety disorder.
Because of their ready availability, antihistamines could also potentially increase the risk of a negative interaction. This includes other prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs. Negative interactions can even happen with vitamins or nutritional supplements.
When to See a Doctor
You shouldn’t delay seeing a doctor when you have doubts about your medical condition or you’re about to start a new medication. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist at the first sign of anxiety or depression as these are serious conditions that may need professional care. Always ask your doctor about potential drug interactions if you’re currently taking medication or herbal supplements for any reason. Seek help immediately if you take an antihistamine and experience a negative reaction, especially if it impairs your ability to breathe.
Anxiety and depression are both very serious emotional health issues that frequently need specialist care to treat. If you think you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder, call us at (833) 596-3502 right away. Our compassionate team of counselors knows what you’re going through and can help. Start your journey to lifelong recovery with us now.