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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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FAQ: Cough and Cold Medicines

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    Acetaminophen or medicated lozenges and gargles can also temporarily soothe your sore throat. But see your doctor if you have a fever, a lot of pain, or you find it hard to swallow. You may have strep throat and need antibiotics.

    For in-depth information, see Is Your Sore Throat a Cold, Strep Throat, or Tonsillitis?

    Are combination cold medicines effective?

    Many people get relief from them. These drugs often contain a pain reliever, a cough suppressant, and an expectorant that loosens up your mucus and makes it easier to cough it up. They also often have either a decongestant or an antihistamine.

    Since decongestants can keep you awake, they are usually in "daytime" multi-symptom cold medicines. Antihistamines, which can make you sleepy, are in "nighttime" versions.

    If you try a combination cold medicine, make sure you can safely use the specific ingredients. For instance, if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, avoid ones that have decongestants, which can make those conditions worse. If you have asthma or emphysema, talk to your doctor before taking one that has a cough suppressant.

    How effective are natural cold remedies like zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C?

    Some early research suggests that zinc may ease your symptoms and shorten your cold. But other studies show that it doesn't work any better than a placebo ("dummy pill"). Also, the FDA warns that several zinc nasal sprays have been linked to a permanent loss of smell. For all these reasons, the side effects from zinc may outweigh any possible benefits.

    For in-depth information see Zinc for Colds: Lozenges & Nasal Sprays.

    Studies on echinacea are mixed. Some show some benefit in treating your cold while others show it doesn't help.

    For in-depth information, see Echinacea for the Common Cold.

    As for vitamin C, recent research shows it may only help prevent colds in certain people, such as those who do vigorous exercise in extreme environments.

    There's some evidence that it may shorten how long you have a cold. One large study found that people who took a vitamin C megadose -- 8 grams on the first day they got sick-- shortened the length of their cold.

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