Navigating Cough And Cold Medicines (HD)
Picking the Right Cold Medication
Unsure of how to choose the best over-the-counter drugs to treat your aches? Read our guide to flu and cold medication.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Tough decisions are the last thing you want to face when a cold hits you full force, yet any veteran of the cold medication aisle in the pharmacy can tell you the choices are overwhelming.
“It’s very confusing because there are so many different products. People simply have to read labels. I tell people, especially older folks, to bring your magnifying glass with you because the print is so small,” says Richard Streiffer, MD, dean of the college of community health sciences at The University of Alabama. While you’re squinting at the cold medication label, pay close attention to the doses recommended for different age groups.
Follow these steps for making sense of over-the-counter cold medicine:
- Know your symptoms.It’s important to identify your symptoms so you can choose the proper medications with the right ingredients to address each of them. For example, if you’ve got congestion, cough, and itchy watery eyes, take a decongestant, a cough suppressant, and an antihistamine, then drop each one as the symptoms fade. If you only have a few symptoms, combination medicines that cover what troubles you can offer relief.
- Be careful not to take two medications with the same ingredients.This is especially true for acetaminophen. This common fever reducer and pain reliever can be found in variety of cold medications, but taking too much of it increases the risk of liver damage.
- Learn about cough and cold ingredients.Know which active ingredients relieve the various cold symptoms by reading the “cold medication by symptom” guide below.
Cold Medication by Symptom: Cough
- Cough suppressants.Also called antitussives, these medications actually stop you from coughing. Look for dextromethorphan (Robitussin Maximum Strength, Vicks 44 Cough Relief).
- Expectorants.This category of cold medication thins mucus, so rather than stopping your cough, your cough will sound wet or be more “productive.” Look for the ingredient guaifenesin (Mucinex DM, Robitussin).
If you have a nasty cough, cold medications that include antihistamines and decongestants can help, but keep in mind that they may dry you out and make it harder to clear the cough.
Cold Medication by Symptom: Fever, Sore Throat, and Aches and Pains
- Acetaminophen.This is generally marketed as Tylenol and is a good option for headaches and other aches and pains.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).This category of cold medication works by cutting down on inflammation in your body and includes aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (Aleve).
Some products, such as Excedrin, contain both acetaminophen and NSAIDs.
Cold Medication by Symptom: Sneezing, Runny Nose, and Itchy, Watery Eyes
Antihistamines.If you’re suffering from sniffling, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, and/or a runny nose, a product with an antihistamine is your best bet. These treat allergy symptoms as well as cold symptoms. Look for:
- Brompheniramine (Dimetapp Cold and Allergy Elixir, Robitussin Cold & Allergy)
- Chlorpheniramine (Singlet)
- Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Nytol)
- Doxylamine (NyQuil, Alka-Seltzer Plus Night Time Cold Medicine)
Cold Medication by Symptom: Congestion
Decongestants.These medications reduce the swelling of tissues in your nose, making breathing easier. Look for:
- Pseudoephedrine (Contac Non-drowsy, Sudafed) — in some states you will have to show your driver’s license to the pharmacist in order to get medications containing this ingredient
- Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
If you’re still having a hard time navigating the cold medication aisle, talk to the pharmacist. With a little information about ingredients, you may be able to get better symptom relief during cold season this year.
Video: What cold medicine should you buy?
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