As summer fades and autumn ushers in cooler temperatures, we also brace for the onset of cold and flu season. Every year, countless Americans find themselves battling the pesky common cold, sometimes multiple times. As sniffles and coughs prevail, many will seek solace in over-the-counter (OTC) medications, offering a reprieve without the need for a doctor’s prescription.

Heading to the Pharmacy for Some Relief? Read This First

Though OTC drugs won’t cure or reduce the duration of a cold or flu, they can certainly alleviate some symptoms. However, picking the right product isn’t always as simple as it seems. A recent study delved into popular OTC medications branded for cold, allergy, sinus, and nasal relief. Remarkably, out of 211 distinct products from 14 well-known brands like Mucinex, Tylenol, Robitussin, Benadryl, Delsym and Theraflu, only eight active ingredients were identified, either in isolation or mixed.

Surprisingly, half of these ingredients were found in over 100 different products, many times blended with up to three other active components. In all, the study identified 688 combination products. With so many of these under the same brand aiming to tackle colds, allergies, or sinus issues, it’s no wonder selecting a remedy at the drugstore can feel overwhelming. And remember, this study didn’t even touch upon generic or store-branded products.

How to safely choose cough and cold medicines

Faced with a sea of seemingly identical products, how do you make the right choice? It’s essential to recognize that many of these medications contain more active components than necessary. These extra ingredients can come with side effects and might interact with other medications you’re currently taking. The most straightforward approach? Examine the list of active ingredients on the packaging and opt for a product that aligns with your specific symptoms.

  • For alleviating sore throats, headaches, and muscle aches, pain relievers like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are effective options. These medications also have the ability to reduce fever.
  • If you’re dealing with a runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing, consider using an antihistamine like chlorpheniramine for relief. Be mindful that antihistamines can induce drowsiness, so it’s important to exercise caution when taking them during the daytime.
  • To temporarily address nasal congestion, you can turn to the oral decongestant pseudoephedrine (found in Sudafed). However, it may lead to insomnia and agitation, and it can also elevate blood pressure and heart rate. If you have conditions like diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, high blood pressure, prostate issues, or thyroid problems, it’s advisable to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before using pseudoephedrine. Alternatively, there are nasal spray decongestants available, but these should not be used for more than three days, as prolonged use can result in rebound congestion.
  • Common ingredients in cough medicines include guaifenesin, which aids in mucus clearance, and dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant. It’s important to note that their effectiveness in providing relief is relatively limited. While guaifenesin is generally considered safe, excessive use of dextromethorphan can potentially raise blood pressure, lead to irregular heartbeats, and cause dizziness.

What to be careful about

Despite the alluring promises and an expansive range of products, over-the-counter cough, cold, and flu remedies often offer limited relief for symptoms that will eventually resolve themselves without intervention.

  • It’s important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against the use of over-the-counter cough and cold remedies for children below 6 years of age.
  • If you’re consuming multiple products, ensure that you’re not inadvertently taking duplicate ingredients. Acetaminophen is especially noteworthy since it’s found in numerous cough and cold remedies as well as some prescribed pain medications. While it’s safe in moderate amounts, high doses (exceeding 4 grams daily) can harm the liver. Always check product labels for clarity.
  • The majority of these products feature a mix of ingredients, several of which may carry significant side effects. Don’t simply assume they’re safe; diligently review labels. If unsure, it’s always wise to consult with a pharmacist or your physician.
  • Always inform your doctor about all the medications and supplements you’re using. A product’s brand name might not give a complete picture, so consider bringing the actual products or their packaging to medical appointments.

If you have pre-existing medical issues, like high blood pressure or heart-related conditions, these precautions are particularly crucial.

The most effective remedy for the common cold includes ample rest and hydration. However, prevention always tops the list. Make a habit of washing your hands frequently and avoid close contact with those who are ill when you can. While a flu shot doesn’t protect against the common cold, it’s your best defense against the flu, and that’s one less health concern to have on your plate this year.