Some allergy meds require a photo ID to buy. Here’s what to do in Philly if you don’t have one

With pollen counts high this spring, many are reaching for their allergy meds. But some over-the-counter allergy drugs require a U.S. photo ID to purchase.

The interior of a Kensington pharmacy

File photo: Patients pick up prescriptions at a Kensington pharmacy. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With pollen counts high around the Philadelphia region, many are reaching for allergy medicine to soothe watery eyes and persistent sneezes.

But some over-the-counter allergy drugs require a U.S. photo ID to purchase, because they contain ingredients like pseudoephedrine that can be used to make illegal drugs. That can be a barrier for allergy sufferers who are visiting from another country, undocumented, low-income, formerly incarcerated, or lack a current state-issued identification for other reasons.

Magaly, an undocumented immigrant from Peru, developed seasonal allergies last year. WHYY News is not using her last name out of discretion for her immigration status.

“At first, I was just sneezing, but it got worse. My eyes started bothering me a lot and itching. I couldn’t stand it,” she said, in an interview in Spanish. Magaly works as a house cleaner, and said the dust and pet hair in the houses she cleaned further aggravated her symptoms. Benadryl and Zyrtec were not helping.

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But when she went to the pharmacy to buy an over-the-counter allergy medicine with a decongestant in it, she was turned away.

“I felt bad because something like that had never happened to me,” Magaly said.

The federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 enacted purchase limits and other measures aimed at restricting sales of over-the-counter medications with ingredients like pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which can be used to make methamphetamine. That includes some cold and allergy medicines that contain a decongestant.

Many states, including Pennsylvania, subsequently passed their own laws further detailing systems for tracking such sales. While the official U.S. Department of Justice list of accepted photo identification is long, foreign passports are not always accepted and even allergy-sufferers with a valid ID can be turned away due to confusion over the laws.

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In Indiana last year, CVS refused to sell a college student from Puerto Rico cold medicine after he showed his territorial driver’s license. The drugstore chain later apologized.

“People don’t always recognize unusual IDs,” said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a non-profit immigrants’ rights organization. She said she has been able to use a consular identification card at some pharmacies, but not others. “People think it’s fake,” she said.

Pennsylvania state officials say pharmacy policies may further limit access to these medications. “Many retailers [are] … only set up in their systems for driver’s licenses, [though] that is not the only acceptable form of identification,” said a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

For anyone struggling to get through allergy season without these medications, efforts to expand access to driver’s licenses and other forms of local and state identifications can provide another way to find relief while following the law.

In Philadelphia, the PHL City ID program provides official photo IDs to anyone over the age of 13 with proof of residency and identification. Among accepted proof of identity are foreign passports, a foreign birth certificate, a Veteran Identification card, a U.S. or foreign driver’s license, a school ID, or an inmate identification card.

Local and state ID cards can be used to purchase allergy medicine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That gives students, immigrants, and anyone else without a driver’s license a way to get their medicine, provided pharmacies accept it.

“For our clients without a government-issued ID, we help them apply for a City ID … This can be used to purchase medicine if necessary,” said ​Dianne Uwayo, manager of health programs at the African Family Health Organization in Philadelphia.

In New Jersey, some undocumented immigrants can qualify for a driver’s license.

Magaly’s husband, who has a PHL City ID, ended up buying her the Claritin-D she needed. “It’s good they require ID,” she said of pharmacies. Still, she said it felt “absurd” to get turned away from buying medicine she needed.

Support for WHYY’s coverage of health equity issues comes from the Commonwealth Fund.

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