A few weeks ago, I shared with you my experience of withdrawal from the allergy drug Zyrtec (read about it here). (I specifically took Costco’s generic version of Zyrtec called “Aller-Tec.” Both contain the same active ingredient, Cetirizine HCl – the generic name of the drug – but most people know the brand name of the drug, Zyrtec.) I chronicled the first few days in my last post but I wanted to give readers an in-depth look at the rest of my withdrawal experience. Overall, it was a painful 21+ days dealing with the itching that came with discontinuing the medication.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the first days after discontinuing Zyrtec were the worst. Day 1 was surprisingly tolerable but on day 2, the itching worsened. In order to rate my pain, I decided to use the medical community’s pain scale that assigns numbers 0-10 to judge one’s pain (with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced) and use this to describe my itch. For day 2, I was at an 8-9. This severe itch lasted until day 7, when my itch scale was a 7 out of 10.
During these early days, I tried to keep busy. Anything to keep my mind off what my body was feeling.
I’m fortunate that I am unemployed and was able to deal with this hell from the comfort of home. I had my daughters and husband to help me around the house when necessary.
For me, exercise was my only escape. Spending time on my rowing machine each day, I was forced to focus on something else. My hands, arms, and legs were occupied, and it was a welcome relief to both my brain and my skin to ignore the itch and give my skin a break. Not that I didn’t itch while exercising – I did! I just pushed through and tried not to think about it.
During these horrible seven days, I felt like insects were crawling all over my skin. Weird places itched like my ears and even my eyeballs! I think the worst areas were my palms, hands, chest, and forearms. Hives showed up on my chest and hands and I itched like crazy everywhere. With all the scratching and bleeding, I looked like myself with the chicken pox at age 6, with all of the hives, redness, and lesions in various states of healing on my body.
Scratching and scraping my body was the only thing that relieved the disturbing itch. I often dug my fingernails into irritated skin, activating pain signals and temporarily blocking the itch. My hands looked ghastly, covered in sores and wounds, hiding them whenever out in public.
Nights were the worst. I stayed up late at night to be sure I’d fall asleep quickly and didn’t spend hours itching in bed, but the itching came anyway.
Upon starting my second week of withdrawal, the itching was still pretty constant, but the intensity had lowered. I was incredibly relieved to be through the worst of it! I was now a 6 on my itch scale. During this second week I had a lot more variation in the intensity of the itch. I’d itch a lot in the morning, then have a decent afternoon with only slight discomfort, and at night the the itch would intensify. The worst itching still came late, after 10 pm. Apparently, histamine levels peak in the middle of the night (1-3 am) for most people, which would explain why I dreaded nights and felt uncomfortable in my own skin.
Around day 10, my itch was a 4-5 out of 10 which made it more tolerable. However, it was always lurking in the background. Even though the urge to scratch was not debilitating, it was still there and would flare up at night. I had real doubts as to whether or not I was doing the right thing. “Should I have consulted with a doctor first? Maybe I really do have some bad allergies. Why am I still experiencing so much painful itching?”
At this point, I was getting depressed, mostly because I was sick of dealing with this sh*t. I figured I’d suffer for a week, 10 days max. Why was I still hurting? My strength was waning. My determination to conquer Zyrtec withdrawal was dwindling. Feeling heartbroken and defeated, I wondered if I’d ever get past this.
I cried. I scratched. I felt sorry for myself. And I was mad. Mad at the drug manufacturers, mad at myself for taking the damn drug, and mad that my body was reacting so horribly off the medication. Withdrawal from an allergy medication should NOT happen, should NOT take this long, and should NOT make a person miserable for WEEKS.
I continued to itch, still broke out in hives, and scratched and tore at my skin until day 12. It was on this day that I went a few hours without any itching, and finally realized that yes, there would be an end to this.
At two weeks of life without Zyrtec, itching was not the focus of my day. Finally! I could go about my day much more normally because I wasn’t feeling crawling sensations on my skin constantly. The itch was a 3 out of 10, but still flared up to a 4-5 at night.
During my third week off Zyrtec, my skin was healing from all the trauma I inflicted on it from scratching constantly. The itch was minimal (or gone!) during the day but was still around at night. If I didn’t preventatively use ice packs on my forearms and hands, I would mildly itch until I fell asleep. By the end of this third week, I definitely felt much more like myself and was happy to be returning to “normal.”
During this fourth and final week of documenting my withdrawal, I was more or less itch free. Some evenings I had alcohol and I believe that caused a little itching on my skin, but it was tolerable. At this time, I learned that some people actually have a histamine intolerance and have to avoid certain foods and medication. This includes alcohol, fermented foods, and some artificial colorings and preservatives because they can trigger histamine release.
If I stayed away from alcohol, I didn’t itch. So, by and large, on this 4th week I considered myself completely free of Zyrtec withdrawal symptoms. It was an incredibly satisfying feeling to be completely done with this horrible drug that I clung to for so many years. Yes, I did itch every now and then, but staying away from alcohol and being well-hydrated was the combination that worked for me.
(Below are some Amazon affiliate links to products that helped me cope with Zyrtec withdrawal. I earn a small commission if you make a purchase.)
Here’s what I did, what meds I took, and how I coped with my 2+ weeks of misery:
Patience – Patience is the most important thing. Withdrawal from this drug is going to take some time. It will take days and weeks for your body to get used to not being on the drug and regulating your histamine levels. Be strong, be patient, and you will persevere.
Taper Your Dosage – The second most important piece of advice is to taper your dose. Draw up a plan for decreasing your dosage over time until you’re barely taking any. Give your body time to adjust to the new amount of Zyrtec you take, from a week to a month, before cutting back again. I tapered down to a 1/4 of a 10 mg tablet and then quit. Some say to taper with children’s liquid Zyrtec because you can dial in the dose reduction more accurately, until you are hardly taking any.
Cold Water and Ice Packs – Super cold water soothed my itchy hands. During the first week of withdrawal, I took cool showers, as that brought me more relief than heat. Some nights I’d use an ice pack on my hands or keep my hands in super cold water, which tamed the itch.
Exercise – If you can, I recommend exercising to help your body heal and rid itself of the excess histamine in your body. It helps if you can take your mind off your suffering, if only for 30 minutes.
Stay Hydrated – Drink plenty of water to flush your body of histamine build up. Staying well hydrated will also keep your skin from drying out and causing more itching.
Use Lotion – Keeping your skin moisturized and healthy is important when you scratch yourself silly. I did purchase some lotions that help to numb the skin, including Sarna Anti-Itch Lotion, Bengay with Lidocaine, and I bought hydrocortisone cream to relieve the itch. Even though these lotions helped, be careful using lotions with alcohol in them. Alcohol is a drying agent and can make your skin drier and more itchy.
Peppermint Soap and Shampoo – If you’ve ever used peppermint soap or shampoo, you know that they cause a tingling sensation. As I was desperate to not feel an itch, I used Dr. Bronner’s Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap for shampoo and body soap. I left it on my scalp and body until I felt the tingle, then rinsed off. The slight numbing effect was glorious. This peppermint soap was really helpful for my scalp, which definitely got it’s fair share of the scratching.
THC – Yes, THC helped me. Recreational marijuana is legal in Illinois and I have a medical marijuana license due to my degenerative disc disease. Around the fourth day of withdrawal, I medicated my back pain with THC and realized that the itching had lessened. Every time I took the THC, within hours I was much more comfortable and scratched less. Once I realized this, I medicated with THC once or twice a day. Please keep in mind I was micro-dosing THC, only ingesting 5 mg of THC at a time. Five milligrams was usually enough to get me through the bulk of the day, quieting the angry itch, but some evenings benefited from an additional dose.
Using a Body Brush – By the second week of withdrawal, I was carrying around a body brush to scratch every itch. Scratching with fingernails left me with open wounds that easily got infected, so switching to a body brush was a gentler alternative. I also used the softer side of a pumice stone while in the shower to soothe the itch. Lightly raking my skin with the pumice stone brought me some much needed itch relief while getting rid of dry, dead skin.
Get Comfortable – I made sure that anything that was touching my body was comfortable, so I wore long sleeved shirts, workout leggings, and cozy socks. I also removed any jewelry that bothered my hands and neck. Keeping my body comfortable in any way possible, was a primary objective.
Ester Vitamin C – I took Ester Vitamin C based on online recommendations from others who have gone through Zyrtec withdrawal. Vitamin C is crucial during illness/ infection and most of us don’t get enough in our daily diets. Ester Vitamin C is not only less acidic than regular Vitamin C, but it goes into your white blood cells and stays there for up to 24 hours, much longer than regular vitamin C. Since it is so important in repairing tissues, overall immune system functioning, and is a powerful antioxidant, I decided to take the supplement. I have no idea if this helped, but I took it everyday.
Red Wine/Alcohol – Red wine is a big no-go with Zyrtec withdrawal. One night I learned this the hard way, as I laid in bed til 3 am scratching. Red wine is high in histamines, compared to white wines and sparkling wines (which still flared up my itching a bit). I sure hope I can return to drinking red wine, as it is my favorite, but for now I’m avoiding it with no regrets.
Hot Baths – I only had to take one hot bath to learn my lesson. Thinking that a hot bath would help, I sat in one for almost an hour. The hot water did feel nice while I was in it, but it caused extreme itching later. I’m not sure if the bath simply dried out my skin or if it brought too much histamine to the surface of my skin; whatever the reason, I never took another one.
I can’t stress enough the importance to taper yourself off the drug. Be sure to do it slowly. Let your body adjust with every dose alteration you make. I took Zyrtec for about 5 years, tapered my dose for about 6 weeks, until I was taking to 1/4 of a 10 mg pill (2.5 mg) and it still took a hard 2-3 weeks to break free.
Also, try to withdrawal when you have limited distractions. I realize I was lucky because I could do this at home with minimal obligations. Just try to withdrawal when things are slower or easier with work or school and don’t try this during busy months. It’s important for you to be your number one advocate at this time and take care of yourself first. Plan out when you’ll start and prepare by getting in the right headspace to tackle this challenge. This will increase your chances of success.
Not everyone will have the same experience with withdrawal. Some will have it better, others worse. Some recommend taking antihistamines like Benadryl, Allegra, or Claritin when you stop taking Zyrtec since these drugs will get rid of the itch and not complicate withdrawal. I didn’t want to introduce ANY antihistamines into my body because I wanted to body to go back to normal and back to its normal histamine levels. I didn’t want to make withdrawal any longer, harder, or impede the process.
After 20 days I still had minor flare ups of itching, and by the 4th week, I was back to normal. Sure, every now and then something makes the itching flare up, but it’s nothing like it was before. As my body finds homeostasis again in its histamine levels, I can confidently say I am free from Zyrtec and no longer dependent on a pill that forced my body to become addicted to it.
Are you going through Zyrtec withdrawal? Got any tips for others? Let us know in the comments!
You can do this. Go Zyrtec free!
To Your Health,
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