Efficacy and tolerability of newer antihistamines in the treatment of allergic conjunctivitis

Drugs. 2005;65(2):215-28. doi: 10.2165/00003495-200565020-00004.


Treatment for allergic conjunctivitis has markedly expanded in recent years, providing opportunities for more focused therapy, but often leaving both physicians and patients confused over the variety of options. As monotherapy, oral antihistamines are an excellent choice when attempting to control multiple early-phase, and some late-phase, allergic symptoms in the eyes, nose and pharynx. Unfortunately, despite their efficacy in relief of allergic symptoms, systemic antihistamines may result in unwanted adverse effects, such as drowsiness and dry mouth. Newer second-generation antihistamines (cetirizine, fexofenadine, loratadine and desloratadine) are preferred over older first-generation antihistamines in order to avoid the sedative and anticholinergic effects that are associated with first-generation agents. When the allergic symptom or complaint, such as ocular pruritus, is isolated, focused therapy with topical (ophthalmic) antihistamines is often efficacious and clearly superior to systemic antihistamines, either as monotherapy or in conjunction with an oral or intranasal agent. Topical antihistaminic agents not only provide faster and superior relief than systemic antihistamines, but they may also possess a longer duration of action than other classes including vasoconstrictors, pure mast cell stabilisers, NSAIDs and corticosteroids. Many antihistamines have anti-inflammatory properties as well. Some of this anti-inflammatory effect seen with 'pure' antihistamines (levocabastine and emedastine) may be directly attributed to the blocking of the histamine receptor that has been shown to downregulate intercellular adhesion molecule-1 expression and, in turn, limit chemotaxis of inflammatory cells. Some topical multiple-action histamine H(1)-receptor antagonists (olopatadine, ketotifen, azelastine and epinastine) have been shown to prevent activation of neutrophils, eosinophils and macrophages, or inhibit release of leukotrienes, platelet-activating factors and other inflammatory mediators. Topical vasoconstrictor agents provide rapid relief, especially for redness; however, the relief is often short-lived, and overuse of vasoconstrictors may lead to rebound hyperaemia and irritation. Another class of topical agents, mast cell stabilisers (sodium cromoglicate [cromolyn sodium], nedocromil and lodoxamide), may be considered; however, they generally have a much slower onset of action. The efficacy of mast cell stabilisers may be attributed to anti-inflammatory properties in addition to mast cell stabilisation. In the class of topical NSAIDs, ketorolac has been promoted for ocular itching but has been found to be inferior for relief of allergic conjunctivitis when compared with olopatadine and emedastine. Lastly, topical corticosteroids may be considered for severe seasonal ocular allergy symptoms, although long-term use should be avoided because of risks of ocular adverse effects, including glaucoma and cataract formation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Administration, Topical
  • Conjunctivitis, Allergic / drug therapy*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Histamine Antagonists / adverse effects*
  • Histamine Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Humans


  • Histamine Antagonists