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Many over-the-counter (OTC) products can relieve cold and flu symptoms. However, the variety of products available can sometimes be overwhelming.
People need to know which symptoms they want to relieve when choosing a cold medicine. Choosing the wrong medicine for the symptoms will mean that the medicine does not help.
Choosing a cold medicine that addresses a person’s specific symptoms will help the most. However, certain medicines may be unsuitable for people with chronic health conditions, pregnant women, and young children. Some medicines may also cause side effects.
This article reviews the best cold medicines for a runny nose, a stuffy nose, wet or dry coughs, and for children. It also looks at cold medicine interactions and how people can take care of themselves at home.
People with a cold or flu may experience a runny nose, or rhinitis. However, no OTC medicine can help relieve a runny nose due to a cold.
Topical anticholinergics, such as ipratropium bromide 0.03% nasal spray, may help reduce a runny nose. However, this medicine requires a prescription from a doctor.
Sometimes, a runny nose is a symptom of an allergic reaction. If this symptom is due to an allergy and not a cold, antihistamines may help.
Decongestants can help relieve a stuffy nose. Both topical and oral decongestants are available over the counter.
Topical nasal sprays offer quick relief but may cause rebound congestion with overuse. People should restrict using decongestants to a maximum of 3 consecutive days.
Oral decongestants, including pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, are effective for the short-term relief of nasal congestion. However, some people may experience side effects from decongestants, such as insomnia or increases in heart rate or blood pressure.
Some cold medicines contain other ingredients, such as antihistamines. People typically use antihistamines for allergies, but because they can cause drowsiness, manufacturers also add them to nighttime cold and flu formulations. This can help people if they have difficulty getting to sleep.
Adding an antihistamine to a decongestant does not guarantee that a person will fall asleep. Also, people should stop using decongestants at nighttime if they find that they cause insomnia.
People with a cold or flu may experience a cough. A “wet,” or “productive,” cough refers to a cough that produces mucus. Doctors do not recommend medicines that suppress a cough for people with a wet cough.
People with a wet cough may take guaifenesin. This is an expectorant that manufacturers claim can help loosen mucus and phlegm.
People with a dry cough, which is a cough that does not produce mucus, may take a cough suppressant. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant present in many cold and flu medicines. It acts on parts of the brain to stop a person from coughing.
Sometimes, manufacturers add dextromethorphan to combination cold and flu products, such as “all-in-one” medicines.
People must read the full ingredient list to make sure that they are not taking medicines that do not fit their symptoms or that may interfere with other medications they take. A pharmacist can help a person choose a safe product.
Also, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a person should not take multiple medicines that contain acetaminophen at the same time.
In some countries, people can purchase codeine cough syrup without a prescription. Codeine does not help people with coughs caused by a cold virus.
Evidence suggests that codeine may help suppress a cough in humans only in some situations. Therefore, a person should speak with a doctor before taking codeine to treat a cough.
People should also avoid mixing different cough suppressants. Both dextromethorphan and codeine can cause drowsiness. The side effects of different cough medicines can combine and cause severe fatigue or even respiratory failure.
Cold symptoms in toddlers under 2 years of age may seem alarming to parents and caregivers, but they typically disappear on their own with time. A cold will typically run its course over 1–2 weeks.
The FDA do not recommend OTC cold medicines for children under 2 years of age. In some jurisdictions, people can purchase low-dose codeine cough syrups over the counter. However, doctors do not recommend codeine cough syrup for people under the age of 18.
Acetaminophen is the fever- and pain-relieving medicine of choice for babies under 6 months old. Ibuprofen is safe in most children after 6 months of age.
It is important to remember that there are special formulations of both of these medicines for children and infants. Avoid giving adult formulations to children of this age to ensure safe dosing. A pharmacist can help a person select a suitable medicine.
Again, people should never take two medicines containing acetaminophen at once.
Sometimes, doctors in neonatal intensive care units may administer ibuprofen to newborns. However, parents and caregivers must avoid giving OTC ibuprofen to babies under 6 months old for safety reasons.
The sections below will look at how certain cold medicines can interact with medications that people take for other conditions.
People taking multiple medications to control their blood sugar levels should speak with a doctor or pharmacist before taking any cold medicines.
Cough syrups often contain sugar. Before taking a cough syrup, people with diabetes should read the label to ensure that it is sugar-free.
High blood pressure
People with high blood pressure and those who are taking blood pressure medications should speak with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a cold medicine with a decongestant.
The most popular pain and fever medicines are acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.
Throughout pregnancy, women can take acetaminophen to treat a fever.
Dextromethorphan is safe during pregnancy, but decongestants may be harmful. Pregnant women should speak with a doctor before taking oral decongestants. Inhaled decongestants may be a good alternative with correct use.
Dextromethorphan and decongestants may interact with certain antidepressants, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors. People taking antidepressants should speak with their doctor or pharmacist about using any cold medicines.
Although the common cold is uncomfortable, it will usually resolve on its own with time. OTC medicines may help ease the symptoms, but they will not cure the common cold.
Some people wish to avoid using OTC medicines and try home remedies instead.
For example, doctors recommend resting for the first few days of the illness. People often try to drink a lot of fluids, but the evidence supporting this strategy is weak. Drinking lots of fluids may provide temporary relief, but it will likely not loosen up the mucus or phlegm in the chest.
People who smoke should try to quit or restrict smoking during a cold or flu to help their lungs.
Some studies have demonstrated that honey can soothe coughs. Parents and caregivers should never give honey to a child under 1 year of age. Try to avoid giving it to anyone under the age of 12.
Ginger can also ease the symptoms of a sore throat.
Cold and flu medicines do not cure the common cold or flu. That said, some may help relieve a runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough.
However, some medicines may be harmful to children and babies, depending on their age.
People with chronic conditions, pregnant women, and people taking other medications should speak with a doctor or pharmacist before taking any OTC medicines.
Shop for cold medicine
Some of these cold medicines are available to purchase online: