Antihistamines are drugs that block the action of histamine (a compound released in allergic inflammatory reactions) at the H1 receptor sites, responsible for immediate hypersensitivity reactions such as sneezing and itching. Members of this class of drugs may also be used for their side effects, including sedation and antiemesis (prevention of nausea and vomiting).
Antihistamines provide their primary action by blocking histamine H1 at the receptor site. They have no effect on rate of histamine release, nor do they inactivate histamine. By inhibiting the activity of histamine, they can reduce capillary fragility, which produces the erythema, or redness, associated with allergic reactions. They will also reduce histamine-induced secretions, including excessive tears and salivation. Additional effects vary with the individual drug used. Several of the older drugs, called first-generation antihistamines, bind non-selectively to H1 receptors in the central nervous system as well as to peripheral receptors, and can produce sedation, inhibition of nausea and vomiting, and reduction of motion sickness. The second-generation antihistamines bind only to peripheral H1 receptors, and reduce allergic response with little or no sedation.
The first-generation antihistamines may be divided into several chemical classes. The side effect profile, which also determines the uses of the drugs, will vary by chemical class. The alkylamines include brompheniramine (Dimetapp) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton). These agents cause relatively little sedation, and are used primarily for treatment of allergic reactions. Promethazine (Phenergan), in contrast, is a phenothiazine, chemically related to the major tranquilizers, and while it is used for treatment of allergies, may also be used as a sedative, the relieve anxiety prior to surgery, as an anti-nauseant, and for control of motion sickness. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is chemically an ethanolamine, and in addition to its role in reducing allergic reactions, may be used as a nighttime sedative, for control of drug-induced parkinsonism, and, in liquid form, for control of coughs. Consult more detailed references for further information.
The second generation antihistamines have no central action, and are used only for treatment of allergic reactions. These are divided into two chemical classes. Cetirizine (Zyrtec) is a piperazine derivative, and has a slight sedative effect. Loratidine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra) are members of the piperadine class and are essentially non-sedating.
Samuel Uretsky PharmD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,