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The Do's and Don'ts of Cough and Cold Medicines

Emily Graham

Cold and flu season is the time of year when sniffles, coughs, aches, and pains seem to be around every corner. Anyone with a cold or the flu wants relief for their symptoms. Picking the right non-prescription product, however, may seem overwhelming with all of the different available options.

Hundreds of products advertise their ability to fix your symptoms, and they come in many different packages and combinations. Which option is the best one for you? It is important to have an idea of the types of medicines that can be used to safely treat your cold or flu symptoms.

If you are in the market for some relief, follow this list of do’s and don’ts to help you decide which of these non-prescription medicines would help your symptoms:

  • DO try to remember these classes of medicines that will best help to treat your cold or flu symptoms:

    • Analgesics, or pain relievers, are used to help relieve fever, aches, and pains, such as a headache or sore throat. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen (Advil®), and naproxen (Aleve®) are all common non-prescription analgesics that are marketed both alone and within combination cough and cold products.

    • Antihistamines may dry up secretions and relieve itchiness. These are helpful for runny noses or watery eyes. Medication names include chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine (Benadryl®).

    • Cough suppressants may help to prevent you from coughing. These are best to use when you have a dry cough that you cannot hold back. Dextromethorphan, a non-prescription cough suppressant, is found in Robitussin® DM and Delsym®.

    • Expectorants help you to clear mucous from your air passages. So, if you’re coughing up mucous—a thick yellow substance—try a product with guaifenesin. Guaifenesin is an expectorant and is found in the brand-name products Robitussin® and Mucinex®.

    • Nasal decongestants are helpful in clearing up stuffy noses. Pseudoephedrine is the most effective decongestant. It is the main ingredient in Sudafed®. All pseudoephedrine products are regulated to prevent misuse and, thus, are kept behind the pharmacy counter with the pharmacist. Phenylephrine is another non-prescription nasal decongestant. Nasal decongestant sprays, such as the popular oxymetazoline (Afrin, Vick’s Sinex) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine), can also be helpful.
  • DO pick a medicine that only treats the symptoms that you are experiencing. Many products contain several ingredients to treat a variety of symptoms.

  • DO keep in mind that certain health conditions may prevent you from safely using a medicine. That’s why it’s so important to always mention any chronic health conditions you may have to your pharmacist, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

  • DO stay hydrated by drinking plenty of liquids any time that you are suffering from a cold or flu. Water also acts as a great expectorant!

  • DO check every acetaminophen label for the appropriate dose, and don’t exceed the daily maximum limit. That also means that you should avoid taking two or more products that contain acetaminophen at the same time unless you’ve checked first with your doctor or pharmacist. That’s because there is a potential for liver damage when you take excessive doses of acetaminophen. For more information on this widely used medicine, click here.

  • DON’T forget about your pharmacist! He or she is always more than happy to help you find a medicine that best treats your symptoms.

If you follow these general rules when looking for a medication to help you fight the flu or a cold, you should be able to find and use a product safely so that you’re on your way to feeling better.

By Emily P. Graham, Pharm.D., M.S., PGY1 Resident, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh, Penn.