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Allergy
POSITION PAPER
Risk of first-generation H1-antihistamines: a GA2LEN
position paper
M. K. Church1,2, M. Maurer1, F. E. R. Simons3, C. Bindslev-Jensen4, P. van Cauwenberge5,
J. Bousquet6, S. T. Holgate2 & T. Zuberbier1
1
Department of Dermatology and Allergy, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany; 2Infection, Inflammation and Immunity, University
of Southampton, Southampton, UK; 3Section of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, University of
Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada; 4Department of Dermatology, Odense University Hospital, Odense, Denmark; 5Department of
Otorhinolaryngology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium; 6Clinique des Maladies Respiratoires, University Hospital, Montpellier, France
To cite this article: Church MK, Maurer M, Simons FER, Bindslev-Jensen C, van Cauwenberge P, Bousquet J, Holgate ST, Zuberbier T. Risk of first-generation
H1-antihistamines: a GA2LEN position paper. Allergy 2010; DOI:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2009.02325.x.
Keywords
adverse event; allergic rhinitis; cognitive
function; sedation.
Correspondence
Torsten Zuberbier, MD, Secretary General of
GA2LEN, Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin,
Allergie-Centrum-Charité, Charitéplatz 1,
D-10117 Berlin, Germany.
Tel.: +49 30 450 518135
Fax: +49 30 450 518919
E-mail: [email protected]
Accepted for publication 11 December 2009
DOI:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2009.02325.x
Edited by: Thomas Bieber
Abstract
Background: First-generation H1-antihistamines obtained without prescription are
the most frequent form of self-medication for allergic diseases, coughs and colds
and insomnia even though they have potentially dangerous unwanted effects which
are not recognized by the general public.
Aims: To increase consumer protection by bringing to the attention of regulatory
authorities, physicians and the general public the potential dangers of the indiscriminate use first-generation H1-antihistamines purchased over-the counter in the
absence of appropriate medical supervision.
Methods: A GA2LEN (Global Allergy and Asthma European Network) task force
assessed the unwanted side-effects and potential dangers of first-generation H1-antihistamines by reviewing the literature (Medline and Embase) and performing a
media audit of US coverage from 1996 to 2008 of accidents and fatal adverse events
in which these drugs were implicated.
Results: First-generation H1-antihistamines, all of which are sedating, are generally
regarded as safe by laypersons and healthcare professionals because of their longstanding use. However, they reduce rapid eye movement (REM)-sleep, impair learning and reduce work efficiency. They are implicated in civil aviation, motor vehicle
and boating accidents, deaths as a result of accidental or intentional overdosing in
infants and young children and suicide in teenagers and adults. Some exhibit cardiotoxicity in overdose.
Conclusions: This review raises the issue of better consumer protection by recommending that older first-generation H1-antihistamines should no longer be available
over-the-counter as prescription- free drugs for self-medication of allergic and other
diseases now that newer second- generation nonsedating H1-antihistamines with
superior risk/benefit ratios are widely available at competitive prices.
H1-antihistamines are inverse agonists that combine with and
stabilize the inactive conformation of H1-receptors and thus
interfere with the actions of histamine at H1-receptors. They
are widely used for the treatment of allergic rhinitis, allergic
conjunctivitis, urticaria, coughs, colds and insomnia. These
drugs are usually classified as older ‘first-generation H1-antihistamines’ and newer ‘second-generation H1-antihistamines’.
First-generation H1-antihistamines, many of which have
been in clinical use since the 1940s and 1950s, derive from
the same chemical stem from which cholinergic muscarinic
antagonists, tranquillizers, antipsychotics and antihypertensive agents were also developed (1). As a consequence, they
ª 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S
have poor receptor selectivity and often interact with receptors of other biologically active amines and causing antimuscarinic, anti-a-adrenergic and antiserotonin effects. They
penetrate the blood–brain barrier readily (Fig. 1A). Their
proclivity to interfere with neurotransmission by histamine at
central nervous system (CNS) H1-receptors potentially leads
to drowsiness, sedation, somnolence, fatigue leading to
impairment of cognitive function, memory and psychomotor
performance. In addition, the H1-antihistaminic effects in the
brain are primarily responsible for the potentially life-threatening toxicity of first-generation H1-antihistamines in overdose. The adverse effects of these drugs have been widely
First-generation H1-antihistamines–more risk than expected
A
B
Church et al.
Cerebral cortex
Hippocampus
and amygdla
Figure 1 The penetration (red colouring) of (A) diphenhydramine, a
first-generation H1-antihistamine, and (B) bepotastine, a secondgeneration H1-antihistamine, into human brain shown by positron
emission tomography [reproduced from reference (3)].
Posterior
pituitary
Medulla
reported, beginning shortly after they were introduced six
decades ago (2).
A major advance in antihistamine development occurred in
the 1980s with the introduction of second-generation H1-antihistamines (4), which are minimally or nonsedating because
of their limited penetration of the blood–brain barrier (Fig. 1
B). In addition, these drugs are highly selective for the histamine H1-receptor and have no anticholinergic effects.
Despite the recommendations of the WHO Guideline
ARIA (Allergic Rhinitis and its Impact on Asthma) guidelines (in collaboration with AllerGen, GA2LEN and WHO)
for use of second-generation H1-antihistamines (5), oral firstgeneration H1-antihistamines are widely used in both adults
and children for self-medication of diverse allergic symptoms,
particularly allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis and urticaria and also for relief of symptoms of upper respiratory
tract infections, and nonspecific cough, disorders in which
there is little or no support for their use (6, 7). In addition,
they are the most commonly used medications worldwide
for relief of insomnia. Their ubiquitous use is related to the
following, largely fallacious, reasons.
The primary reason for their choice by adults as overthe-counter medications is that first-generation H1-antihistamines have been available for decades, and, as such, patients
are very familiar with them and consider that ‘they must be
both effective and safe’. In fact, patients believe them to be
so safe that the warnings on the label that the drugs may
cause drowsiness often go unheeded, or even unread.
For infants and children, the justification for the preference
for first-generation H1-antihistamines is twofold. First, because
of their widespread use for many years, first-generation
H1-antihistamines are assumed, particularly by the general
public, to be as safe as the newer second-generation drugs.
Second, many physicians still advise the use of sedating antihistamines at night to ensure a better sleep. The logic of these
recommendations is not supported by scientific studies (8) but
rather on ‘felt-experience’. Recent studies of the effects of
first-generation antihistamines on brain function suggest that
they produce an unnatural sleep, as is described later.
In line with creating the international guidelines in allergy,
GA2LEN, the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network,
set up a taskforce to investigate the risk/benefit ratio of firstgeneration sedating H1-antihistamines in the treatment of
allergic and pruritic diseases. The taskforce reviewed the literature (Medline and Embase) to evaluate the level of side-effects
Cerebellum
Spinal
cord
Tuberomamillary
nucleus
Figure 2 A map of histaminergic neurons emanating from the
tuberomamillary nucleus in the brain [adapted from reference (9)].
of first-generation H1-antihistamines in controlled studies and
published reports. As there is a bias in reporting of adverse
events towards newly licensed drugs vs old drugs, a screen was
performed using a media audit of US coverage from 1996 to
2008 of accidents and fatal adverse events in which first-generation H1-antihistamines were implicated.
Impact of first-generation antihistamines on cognitive
functions – implications for presenteeism and learning
There are approximately 64 000 histamine-producing neurones, located in the tuberomamillary nucleus of the human
brain. When activated, these neurones stimulate H1-receptors
in all of the major parts of the cerebrum, cerebellum, posterior pituitary and spinal cord (Fig. 2) (9).
The actions of histamine on H1-receptors in the brain have
been implicated in arousal in the circadian sleep/wake cycle,
reinforcement of learning and memory, fluid balance, suppression of feeding, control of body temperature, control of
cardiovascular system and mediation of stress-triggered
release of ACTH and b-endorphin from the pituitary gland
(10). Furthermore, as neurotransmitter amines in the brain
do not work individually but in a complex integrated network, the central anticholinergic effects of first-generation
H1-antihistamines may contribute to their unwanted CNS
effects (11).
First-generation H1-antihistamines markedly alter the
circadian sleep/wake cycle (Fig. 3). The release of histamine
during the day causes arousal, whereas its reduced production at night results in a passive reduction of the arousal
response. It is well established that taking first-generation
H1-antihistamines in doses commonly recommended for the
treatment of allergic disorders frequently leads to daytime
somnolence, sedation, drowsiness, fatigue and impaired concentration and memory (12–15). The incidence of subjectively
ª 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S
First-generation H1-antihistamines–more risk than expected
Church et al.
Awake
First
generation
antihistamine
Awake
Drowsy
Asleep
REM Sleep
delayed and
reduced
REM Sleep
Night
Day
Night
Day
Figure 3 A theoretical diagram of the sleep/wake cycle and the
effects of a first-generation H1-antihistamine leading to somnolence
during the day and abnormal sleep at night. This diagram is based
on data from references (19–21).
reduce the duration of REM sleep (18–21) (Fig. 3). Furthermore, residual effects, or hang-over, are still present the next
morning. Such effects include impairment in divided attention, vigilance, working memory and sensory-motor performance, and reduced latency to daytime sleep (20, 22).
Allergic rhinitis reduces learning ability in children and is
associated with poor examination performance in teenagers.
This situation is worsened by first generation, but not second-generation, H1-antihistamines (Fig. 4) (23–25). Furthermore, in an analysis of 1834 teenage students in the UK
taking national examinations, those with untreated allergic
rhinitis were 40% more likely to drop one or more grades
compared with healthy teenagers. However, if they took a
first-generation H1-antihistamine, the likelihood to drop one
or more grades increased to 70% (26).
Summary of the effects of first-generation H1-antihistamines on the central nervous system
Healthy
children
Conceptual knowledge score
(% change from baseline)
40
Children with allergic
rhinitis
35
30
25
20
15
First-generation H1-antihistamines cause drowsiness, especially with the initial doses. Indeed, their packaging carries a
warning that they may cause drowsiness and, if affected, not
to drive or operate machinery. It is clear that many patients
either ignore this warning or think it applies only to the
period immediately following drug ingestion, believing that
there will be no impairment in the morning when having
taken the drug the previous evening. Below is a summary of
the most common CNS effects of first-generation H1-antihistamines.
Impairment of function is produced even by the lowest
doses of first-generation H1-antihistamines that are recommended by manufacturers; for example, chlorpheniramine
4 mg, diphenhydramine 25 mg, promethazine 10 mg and
triprolidine 5 mg (27, 28).
l Effects of first-generation H1-antihistamines on the CNS
are similar to and additive with those produced by alcohol
(ethanol) or other CNS-sedatives, such as benzodiazepines
(14, 15, 29).
l
Bedtime dosing may not decrease functional impairment
during the next day because first-generation H1-antihistamines have long elimination half-life values with consequential hang-over effects the following morning (14, 20, 22, 30,
31).
l Some patients are especially vulnerable to the CNS effects,
for example: women; the elderly; persons with a small body
mass hepatic or renal dysfunction; or those with a pre-existing CNS disorder (14, 15).
l
Tolerance to sedation and psychomotor impairment,
although suggested from some studies (14, 32–34), does not
necessarily occur (15, 35).
l
10
5
0
No ent
tm
rea
t
o
ceb
Pla
e
nhe e
din
Dip amin orata
r
L
hyd
Figure 4 The effect of allergic rhinitis on learning in children and
the influence of a first-generation (diphenhydramine) and secondgeneration (loratadine) H1-antihistamine. The conceptual knowledge
score of children with allergic rhinitis taking diphenhydramine was
significantly (P = 0.0167) lower than that of healthy children. There
was no significant difference between healthy children and those
with allergic rhinitis taking loratadine [adapted from reference (23)].
reported somnolence has been reported to vary from 40%
with chlorpheniramine or brompheniramine to 80% after
hydroxyzine (16). However, lack of drowsiness does not
mean that an individual is able to drive a vehicle without
impairment because subjective somnolence and impairment
of the ability to perform tasks are not necessarily correlated,
some individuals denying subjective adverse effects despite
objective evidence of impairment, while others complain of
somnolence and yet are able to perform psychomotor tests
adequately (17).
At night, first-generation H1-antihistamines increase the
latency to the onset of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and
ª 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S
Antihistamines and accidents – an underestimated danger of cognitive impairment
Antihistamines and airplane crashes
The Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine published by the
International Civil Aviation Organization states that ‘a pilot
First-generation H1-antihistamines–more risk than expected
with allergic symptoms severe enough to require medication
should be treated with a nonsedating antihistamine, such as
fexofenadine or loratadine’ (36–38). While this is rigorously
enforced with random drug screening tests for military and
commercial airline pilots, it is clear that this recommendation
is blatantly disregarded by many other civil aircraft pilots,
particularly those who fly private or small aircraft. Sen and
colleagues (39) used the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute’s
(CAMI’s) Toxicology Database to examine the incidence of
first-generation H1-antihistamines usage in pilot fatalities in
civil aircraft accidents that occurred during a 16-year (1990–
2005) period. Of 5383 fatal aviation accidents from which
CAMI received specimens, there were 338 accidents (6% of
total) where the pilot’s blood sample was found to contain
first-generation H1-antihistamines (brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine, doxylamine, pheniramine,
phenyltoloxamine, promethazine and triprolidine). First-generation H1-antihistamines, varying in blood levels from the
sub-therapeutic to the toxic range, were detected alone in 103
fatalities (1 antihistamine in 94 and 2 antihistamines in 9
cases), while other drug(s) and/or ethanol were also present
in the remainder. The National Transportation Safety Board
determined the use of first-generation H1-antihistamines to be
the cause of 13 and a contributory factor in 50 of the 338
accidents. First-generation H1-antihistamines were found in
approximately 4% of the fatalities/accidents in 1990 and
11% in 2004.
Civil aviation pilots often exceed the manufacturer’s recommended dose of first-generation H1-antihistamines but
continue with their everyday lives regardless (40). Soper and
colleagues reported that during the period 1991–1996, 47
(2.2%) accidents involved chlorpheniramine. In 16 of these
cases, only chlorpheniramine was detected with the average
blood concentration of 100 ng/ml, some ten times higher
than its therapeutic level.
Antihistamines and other accidents
Documentation of accidents involving other means of transport, such as motor vehicles (including buses), trains and
boats, is poor because drivers are usually tested for only ethanol or illegal drugs after a crash. For this reason, the authors
undertook a media audit of US coverage of such accidents
from 1996 to 2008 in which first-generation H1-antihistamines
were implicated. This revealed 54 fatalities, likely a gross
underestimation of the true figure. A similar audit performed
on second-generation H1-antihistamines found no media articles that insinuated them as a source of impairment or inebriation that might lead to an accident or other hapless result.
In fact, an important message of the coverage as a whole is
that second-generation drugs are exonerated from many of
the harmful side-effects of their predecessors.
Danger of potentially lethal overdose by first-generation antihistamines
Overdosage, either by accident or as a suicide attempt, is
common with first-generation H1-antihistamines and often
Church et al.
leads to death. Intoxication symptoms during emergency
admission are variable and to some extent dose-dependent
and age-dependent. Adults and adolescents often exhibit
CNS-suppressive symptoms, including somnolence and coma
(41, 42). Infants and children often exhibit initial paradoxical
CNS stimulation, including agitation, hallucinations, confusion and convulsions before progressing to coma. Diphenhydramine overdoses are so frequently reported to poison
control centres in the United States that evidence-based
guidelines have been published to facilitate their management
(43). In contrast, a search of the literature found no deaths
associated directly with overdoses of second-generation
H1-antihistamines.
Over-the-counter medicines containing first-generation
H1-antihistamines for the treatment of allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, urticaria, coughs, colds and insomnia have
been used for many years. Because of this, they are presumed
by the general population to be efficacious and safe. However, they came into use before randomized controlled clinical trials were required to demonstrate efficacy and safety in
patients of any age, including children. In February 2009, the
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency
(MHRA) in the UK (44) advised that cough and cold remedies containing certain ingredients, including first-generation
H1-antihistamines, should no longer be used in children
under six because the balance of benefit and risks has not
been shown to be favourable. This followed their advice in
March 2008 stating that they should not be used in children
under the age of 2 years. Reports submitted to regulators
stated that more than 3000 people have reported adverse
reactions to these drugs and that diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine were mentioned in reports of 27 and 11 deaths,
respectively (44).
In the United States, reports of serious and often lifethreatening adverse events of promethazine in children led to
a ‘boxed warning’ (the so-called ‘black box’) being added in
2004 to the labelling of promethazine. The warning included
to a contraindication for use in children <2 years of age and
a strengthened warning with regard to use in children 2 years
of age or older (45). In March 2007, a group of senior paediatricians urged the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to
issue a public statement explaining that many over-the-counter paediatric cough and cold medications, including firstgeneration H1-antihistamines, had not been shown to be safe
and effective for children under six, and to take action
against misleading marketing, and to revise its monograph
accordingly. The FDA committee voted 13–9 in favour of
immediate action against the use of cough and cold medications in children under 6 years of age. However, these preparations are still marketed for children between 2 and 5 years
of age. Because the original monograph is still in effect, the
products and their ‘toddler’-friendly, good-tasting liquid
formulations are still being widely advertized to parents in
ways that suggest that they are known to be safe, effective
and recommended by most paediatricians. Furthermore,
despite their own proposal that the use of these products for
sedation be stopped, companies are still marketing ‘nighttime’
preparations containing sedating antihistamines (46).
ª 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S
Church et al.
First-generation H1-antihistamines–more risk than expected
Cardiac toxicity
H1-antihistamines in the elderly
Much has been written about the propensity of two secondgeneration H1-antihistamines introduced in the 1980s, astemizole and terfenadine, to block the IKr current, prolong the
QT interval, and potentially cause serious polymorphic
ventricular arrhythmias such as torsades de pointes (47–49).
These two drugs are no longer approved by regulatory agencies in most countries. Although cardiac toxicity is not a class
effect and does not occur through the H1-receptor, some
first-generation H1-antihistamines, such as promethazine (50),
brompheniramine (51, 52), diphenhydramine (53, 54), may be
associated with a prolonged QTc and cardiac arrhythmias
when taken in large doses or overdoses. No clinically significant cardiac effects have been reported for the second-generation H1-antihistamines loratadine, fexofenadine, mizolastine,
ebastine, azelastine, cetirizine (55, 56) desloratadine (57, 58)
and levocetirizine (59).
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects
of first-generation H1-antihistamines. Twenty-five per cent of
individuals older than 65 years of age have some cognitive
impairment, often with no overt sign of dysfunction (70), and
histamine neurotransmission is disrupted in individuals with
neurodegenerative disease (71). Administration of first-generation H1-antihistamines in this population is associated with
an increased risk of inattention, disorganized speech, altered
consciousness and impaired function or alertness (72, 73).
H1-antihistamines in infants
Even more alarming is the practice of using first-generation
H1-antihistamines as sedatives/sleeping aids in infants.
Although reports of fatal intoxications are uncommon and
are usually accidental, infant homicides have also been
reported (60). For example, five cases of fatal diphenhydramine intoxication were reported in infants from 6 to
12 weeks old. In one case, the child’s father admitted giving
the infant diphenhydramine in an attempt to induce the
infant to sleep; in another case, a daycare provider admitted
putting diphenhydramine in a baby bottle (61).
Over-the-counter cold medications can also contain firstgeneration H1-antihistamines and their use in children may
also be potentially lethal, even when the manufacturer’s
instructions are followed. In a report of ten infant deaths
in Ohio over an 8-month period in which these drugs were
at least a contributory factor to death, two of the cases
were the result of possible child abuse. In the remainder,
caregivers were under the mistaken notion that over-thecounter cold medications formulated for children were also
safe for use in infants. These cases clearly demonstrate that
administration of some over-the-counter cold medications
to infants can result in toxicity that can lead to death
(62, 63).
These reports contrast markedly with the report of an
18-month-old boy, weighing only 13 kg, who drank approximately 18 ml of cetirizine solution, corresponding to a dose
of 180 mg, some 50 times the recommended dose. The
toddler tolerated the overdose with virtually no complications
(64). Although this single case is no proof of the harmlessness
of a major overdose of second-generation H1-antihistamines,
it is supported by six other less dramatic reports of cetirizine
(65) and one of loratadine (66) overdoses in children. Indeed,
the overall safety profiles of the second-generation H1-antihistamines are similar to placebo. This has been confirmed
in randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of
cetirizine, loratadine and levocetirizine lasting 12–18 months
(67–69).
ª 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S
H1-antihistamines in pregnancy
The first-generation H1-antihistamines chlorpheniramine and
diphenhydramine have a favourable FDA category B rating,
i.e. they are recommended for use in pregnancy because of
their lack of teratogenicity. The only orally administered
second-generation H1-antihistamines that have a favourable
category B rating at present and are recommended for use in
pregnancy are cetirizine, levocetirizine and loratadine (14).
However, the main concern about the first-generation
H1-antihistamines in pregnancy is their use in large doses or
overdose just before parturition when they cause contractions
because of their oxytocin-like effects (74). Furthermore, if a
large dose is taken immediately before delivery, the neonate
may exhibit withdrawal symptoms including tremulousness
and irritability (75).
Discussion and Conclusions
The results of this taskforce report clearly show that the risks
of first-generation H1-antihistamines have been clearly underestimated in the medical field, particularly when purchased as
nonprescribed over-the-counter medications. As they are old
drugs introduced before regulatory agencies existed and
licensed before the era of randomized controlled trials and
modern evidence-based medicine, H1-antihistamines are
under less strict surveillance of the regulatory authorities
worldwide.
Based on the concept that ‘what has been good for my
grandparents and my parents must be good for me and my
child’, first-generation H1-antihistamines have been widely
recommended in textbooks to be safe and have been used in
pregnancy, infancy and childhood as preferred drugs. Furthermore, they have often been advised to facilitate a good
night’s sleep for patients with allergic rhinitis or urticaria.
This, however, is no longer logical or acceptable.
First, screening of the public media shows clearly that
there is a high rate of fatal accidents attributed to the use of
first-generation H1-antihistamines. This is easily explained
because, even at recommended doses, the level of impairment
produced by these medications is similar to or exceeds that
produced by alcoholic beverages. For example, diphenhydramine 50 mg is more impairing than alcohol sufficient to
produce a blood concentration of 0.1% (29). Furthermore, in
many instances, individuals often exceed the recommended
doses of first-generation H1-antihistamines to achieve rapid
First-generation H1-antihistamines–more risk than expected
relief from their symptoms (40). While there is a high level of
awareness by the general public of the dangers of drinking
alcohol and driving, too little attention has been given to
similar dangers caused by drugs, especially those available
over-the-counter. These problems can be avoided by the use
of nonsedating second-generation H1-antihistamines instead.
Secondly, it is clear that first-generation H1-antihistamines
have detrimental effects on sleep and learning, exacerbating
the impairment caused by the allergic disease itself. The
REM phases of sleep are changed and because these are
important in brain development and learning, it is no surprise
that in clinical studies of first generation, H1-antihistamines
also impaired the learning capabilities of children. The effect
on learning is a concern because, in our knowledge-based
society, learning at school and at university is of the utmost
importance. In contrast, newer nonsedating second-generation H1-antihistamines are not only free from these unwanted
side-effects but reduce the detrimental effects on mental functions caused by allergic disease.
Given the risks of first-generation H1-antihistamines, there
is no good argument today for these older sedating drugs to
be available as over-the-counter medications. However, we
do not suggest that their prescription by medical practitioners
should be prevented because, as stated in the 2008 EAACI/
GA2LEN/EDF/WAO Guideline on the management of urticaria, special situations may arise for the specialist to employ
them outside the outcome treatment algorithm (76).
It has been pointed out in the past that first-generation
H1-antihistamines are cheaper and especially in countries of
the third world or evolving countries the only way people
can afford a treatment for allergic rhinitis. However, with the
advent of many generic versions of nonsedating antihistamines, this is no longer true. For example, on the Internet
site of a major supplier, generic cetirizine was priced at $5.95
and loratadine at $5.04 per 100 tablets (dosage 1 tablet per
day), while chlorpheniramine was priced at $2.95 per 100
tablets (dosage 4 tablets per day ” $11.8 per day treatment)
(77).
The debate in favour of the availability of the old sedating
H1-antihistamines as over-the-counter medications is based
Church et al.
primarily on emotion rather than on science. The most worrisome point, however, is that, in general, old drugs are under
a less strict surveillance by regulatory authorities and the
public awareness of their possible dangers is less than with
new drugs. In the United States of America, the 1951 Durham-Humphrey amendment to the original Federal Food,
Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 requires that: ‘a drug be
made available without a prescription if, by following the labelling, consumers can use it safely and effectively without professional guidance’. But when a first-generation antihistamine is
purchased from an open display in a pharmacy, patients
assume that it is a perfectly harmless medication; after all it
has been available in this way for several generations. For
acute exacerbations of allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis and urticaria, or in the treatment of troublesome cold or
cough symptoms, individuals often exceed the manufacturers
recommended dose so as to obtain instant relief from symptoms. They seldom pay attention to the warnings of sedation
on the label and continue with their normal everyday activities as usual, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In conclusion, had first-generation H1-antihistamines been
filed for registration with the clear cut criteria for evidencebased medicine studies expected today, it is very unlikely that
regulatory authorities would approve prescription-free sales.
Because the potentially dangerous unwanted effects of these
drugs are not recognized by the general public, consumer
protection needs to be paramount. Therefore, we ask that the
case for allowing the prescription-free sale for self-medication
of old sedating first-generation H1-antihistamines should be
re-examined now that we recognize more fully the dangers of
this class of drugs and as modern nonsedating antihistamines
are now available at competitive prices.
Acknowledgments
The authors acknowledge the help and valuable comments of
the members of the GA2LEN Executive Committee, including Jean Bousquet, Paul van Cauwenberge, Peter Burney,
Magnus Wickmann, Karin C. Lodrup Carlsen and Ewa
Nizankowska-Mogilnicka.
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