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H2-antagonist in IgE-mediated type I hypersensitivity reactions: what literature says so far?


Histamine is a monoamine synthesized from the amino acid histidine that is well-known for its role in IgE-mediated anaphylaxis but has shown pleiotropic effects on the immune system, especially in order to promote inflammatory responses. H1-receptor antagonist are common drugs used in mild/moderate allergic reactions whereas H2-receptor antagonist are commonly administered in gastric ulcer but showed some properties in allergy too. The EAACI guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of anaphylactic reactions recommend their use as third-line therapy in adjunct to H1-antagonists. The purpose of this article is to produce a complete summary of findings and evidence known so far about the usefulness of H2-receptor antagonist in allergic reactons.

To the editor,

According to EAACI guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of anaphylactic reactions [1], H2 anti-histamines are recommended as third-line therapy in adjunct to H1-antagonists. A recent systematic review evaluating acute and long-term management options for anaphylaxis concluded that this combination may require additional research prior to being included in recommended guidelines [2]. Histamine is a well-known immunomodulatory molecule that is able to influence the Th1/Th2 balance through a number of mechanisms and receptors [3, 4]. Among CD4+ T lymphocytes, Th1 cells are known to express higher levels of H1-receptor in contrast to Th2 cells that express a significantly greater proportion of H2-receptors. Through the binding of H1-receptor, histamine is able to activate a Th1-characterized response by increasing the release of interferon­γ. Alternatively, through H2-receptor, histamine is able to suppress a Th1 and/or Th2 response [5] by inhibition of IL-2, IL-4, IL-13, and interferon­γ production [6]. Within dendritic cells, histamine can drive an increase in expression of both MCH-II and the co-stimulatory molecules CD80 and CD86. Binding at the H2 receptor on both dendritic cells and monocytes, it can induce the production of IL-10, and, specific to monocytes, downregulate the release of IL-12, thus shifting the Th1/Th2 balance toward Th2-dominance [7]. Within eosinophilic granulocytes, histamine presents contrasting effects: low concentrations induce an increase in chemotaxis through H4-receptors, whereas greater concentrations are responsible for decreased chemotaxis via H2-receptors [6].

Despite their use in IgE-mediated reactions, especially in urticaria, H2-antagonists have only been documented to reduce wheal, flare, and itching sensation during skin prick test (SPT) procedures [8] and to improve cutaneous symptoms in small studies when administered in conjunction with H1-antagonists [9,10,11]. In an early study evaluating the use of anti-histamines in a mouse model of peanut-induced anaphylaxis, the co-administration of an H1- and H2-antagonist failed to demonstrate any improvement in the severity nor course of the anaphylactic reaction [12]. Findings from a recent retrospective study in humans have demonstrated that, when used alone, H2-antagonists appear unable to inhibit reactions associated with a histamine control during a SPT. Only when administered in conjunction with additional medications possessing anti-histamine properties the H2-antagonists demonstrate increased efficacy in suppression of histamine control-induced SPT reactions, likely due to the effects of the additional medications [13]. Research by Fedorowicz et al. are in agreement with these findings, concluding that the evidence supporting the use of H2-antagonists in the treatment of urticaria is weak and unreliable [14]. In addition, a small randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study suggested that the combination of cetirizine and ranitidine was not more effective than cetirizine alone in the treatment of chronic urticaria [15]. These findings are in contrast to a recent study specifically evaluating cholinergic urticaria suggesting that addition of an H2-antagonist (e.g. lafutidine) to ongoing H1-antagonist therapy could significantly reduce both objective and subjective symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life [16]. This finding agrees with a previous retrospective cohort study that evaluated the efficacy and usefulness of adding lafutidine as an adjunct therapy in patients with idiopathic chronic urticaria that was not sufficiently controlled by an H1-antagonist alone. 74 % of patients considered lafutidine as useful or better after 3 months of treatment [17]. However, it should be noted that cholinergic urticaria is not solely an IgE-mediated disease, but can involve a complex pathogenesis including cholinergic stimuli, histamine-release, type-I hypersensitivity reactions to sweat and Malassezia globose, and poral occlusion [18].

Cimetidine, the first H2-antagonist introduced into clinical practice, has been shown to reduce the suppressor activity of Foxp3+ CD4+ CD25+ Treg cells through an increased degradation of Foxp3 [19]. Additional research has linked the use of cimetidine to an increase in Th1-type cytokine-mediated immune responses and delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions [20]. In a study involving mice sensitized with a ovalbumin, the administration of cimetidine resulted in a significant increase in both specific-IgE and IL-5 levels in the culture supernatants of spleen cells, whereas Th1-, Th2-, and Th17-type cytokines did not differ between treated and untreated mice [21]. Similar results were found in a mouse model of allergic rhinitis in which the mice were sensitized to ovalbumin: the group treated with ranitidine, an H2-antagonist, in conjunction with ovalbumin immunotherapy demonstrated higher levels of specific-IgE and IL-13 in their nasal lavage fluid, as well as greater levels of eosinophils in their nasal mucosa tissue, when compared to the untreated control group, suggesting a pro-inflammatory effect of the H2-antagonist on specific immunotherapy [22]. In studies of humans, cimetidine has demonstrated additional pro-inflammatory effects including the increased release of Th1-type cytokines, in particular IL-12 and IL-2 [23,24,25]. Pastorello et al. evaluated sixty-seven patients with systemic allergic reactions to amoxicillin, ranging from mild to severe, and, surprisingly, they found that treatment with an H2-antagonist was significantly related to severe reactions (p = 0.007) [26]. In monocytes and dendritic cells, the administration of ranitidine was associated with a reduction in histamine-associated suppression of IL-12 release via the H2 receptor [7, 27]. In addition to monocytes and dendritic cells, H2-receptor effects were evaluated in basophils collected from patients undergoing venom immunotherapy. Interestingly, the authors detected a rapid upregulation of H2-receptor and strong suppression of FcεRI-induced basophil activation and mediator release, including histamine and sulfidoleukotrienes, within the first 6 h of the build-up phase [28].

The majority of these findings appear to suggest that H2-antagonists may illicit pro-inflammatory effects, or effects that work in opposition to allergen immunotherapy; however, in 2016, Lee et al. demonstrated that roxatidine presents anti-allergic and tolerogenic effects through the inhibition of NF-κB, a transcription factor involved in immune regulation, apoptosis, cell differentiation, inflammation, and cancer [29]. In particular, roxatidine was able to suppress the release of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-1β from mast cells and delay the fatality rate in anaphylactic-induced mice. Moreover, the authors found that roxatidine significantly reduced ear swelling, mast cell accumulation, cytokine levels, and dendritic cell migration in sections of ear tissue in an animal model of allergen-induced contact hypersensitivity [30]. Additional findings by Geng et al. further support the anti-inflammatory effects of H2-antagonists, demonstrating that both systemic corticosteroids and H2-antagonists are associated with a significantly greater odds ratio for a negative outcome to the histamine control during SPT [31].

As summarized in Table 1, the scientific evidence supporting the role of H2-antagonists in the treatment of allergic reaction remains conflicted. It is possible that H2-antagonists may exert their effects more rapidly on H2-receptors located in vessels and on smooth muscles compared to those on immune-cells [16]. Alternatively, when administered as an adjunct to an H1-antagonist, it is feasible that they could increase the circulating blood levels via interference in drug metabolism and clearance [32]. Further investigations into the use of H2-antagonists during ongoing immunotherapy are needed to evaluate their use in the treatment or prevention of IgE-mediated allergic reactions.

Table 1 Summary of the research manuscripts assessing the role of H2-antagonist in IgE-mediated type I hypersensitivity reactions

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.



Skin prick test


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MB wrote the manuscript, GM collected all the materials, SN reviewed the structure of the article, AL verified for grammar errors, SC designed the article. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matteo Borro.

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Borro, M., Negrini, S., Long, A. et al. H2-antagonist in IgE-mediated type I hypersensitivity reactions: what literature says so far?. Clin Mol Allergy 19, 4 (2021).

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