Oral antihistamines for atopic dermatitis


Generic Name Brand Name
cetirizine hydrochloride [less sedating] Zyrtec
diphenhydramine hydrochloride Benadryl
fexofenadine [nonsedating] Allegra
hydroxyzine Vistaril
loratadine [nonsedating] Claritin

How It Works

Antihistamines reduce itching by blocking chemical (histamine) processes in an allergic reaction. But histamines are not always involved in atopic dermatitis itch, so these medicines may not help all people who have the condition.1

Why It Is Used

For many years, oral antihistamines (taken in pill form) have been used to reduce the itch caused by atopic dermatitis. Sedating antihistamines, which make you sleepy, have been favored for treating children who cannot sleep because of severe itching at night.

How Well It Works

Some people report an improvement in symptoms when they take an antihistamine with corticosteroid treatment. An antihistamine that causes drowsiness can be helpful if itching results in sleep problems.

Side Effects

Potential side effects include drowsiness, weakness, blurred vision, upset stomach, and dry nose, mouth, and throat. Serious side effects are not common.

In rare cases, antihistamines can trigger a seizure in people who have epilepsy.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Doses of antihistamines must be carefully adjusted for each person. These medicines are unlikely to stop atopic dermatitis itch but can be useful for inducing sleep when itching is severe.

Topical antihistamines (put directly on the skin) generally are not used.

Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. Leung DYM, et al. (2008). Atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema). In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., vol. 1, pp. 146–158. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Last Updated: May 5, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS

Medical Review: Martin Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine

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