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Decongestants - Topic Overview

Decongestants may help shrink swollen tissues in the nose, sinuses, throat, and the space behind the eardrum (middle ear). This may relieve pressure, pain, and stuffiness (congestion).

Decongestants can be taken by mouth as a pill or liquid (oral) or used as nose drops, sprays, or gels. The oral kind provides longer relief but may cause more side effects than the ones that are used in the nose. Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other medicines, which may be a problem with oral decongestants.

To know if an over-the-counter medicine contains a decongestant, check the label for the active ingredient. Examples of decongestants are:

In some states, any medicine that contains pseudoephedrine is kept behind the pharmacist's counter so you will need to ask the pharmacist for it. In other states, you have to have a prescription from your doctor to buy medicine containing pseudoephedrine.

Decongestant precautions

  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label slideshow.gif.
  • Decongestants may not be safe for young children. If you use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight. Not everyone needs the same amount of medicine.
  • Decongestants can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, or an overactive thyroid. Decongestants may also interact with some drugs, such as certain antidepressants and high blood pressure medicines. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose the best decongestant for you.
  • Drink extra fluids when you are taking cold and allergy medicines.
  • Don't use decongestant nasal sprays, drops, or gels more times in one day or for more days in a row than the label says. Overuse can cause rebound congestion. It makes your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
  • If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using a decongestant.

For more information about medicine safety, see Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: January 24, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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