A Guide to Cold Medicine for Adults

Over-the-counter medicines won’t cure your cold, but they might make you feel better, so you can rest as it runs its course. Here's a look at some common products and what they can do for you.

Stuffy Nose

Decongestants can curb swelling inside your nose and sinuses, and help you breathe more easily. There are two types:

  • Pills or syrups. If you see the letter "D" at the end of a medicine's name, it means it includes a decongestant. Look for products with phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine. (You may have to ask for these. They're still considered over-the-counter but are often stored behind the counter.)
  • Nasal sprays. Products with oxymetazoline and phenylephrine may work faster than pills or syrups. But if you use them for more than 2-3 days in a row, your congestion could get worse.

Don't take both types of decongestant at the same time. Start with a nasal spray for the first couple of days, and switch to a pill or syrup if you still need it.

Runny Nose, Watery Eyes, and Sneezing

When you have a cold, your body makes chemicals called histamines. That leads to sneezing, a runny nose, and watery eyes.

Over-the-counter antihistamines such as chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine block this process and can relieve those symptoms. They can also make you sleepy and dry out your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Cough

Can’t stop hacking? You have two main choices in the cold-and-flu aisle:

  • Cough suppressants , like dextromethorphan, can provide relief for a short time. They work on the part of your brain that controls the process.
  • Expectorants, like guaifenesin, can break up congestion in your chest by thinning the mucus in your airways. This way, when you do cough, you can get rid of phlegm more easily. Drink plenty of water if you take this medicine.

Fever, Aches, and Sore Throat

These symptoms are usually mild with a cold compared to a more serious illness, like the flu. Still, if you feel bad and can’t rest, most experts agree it’s OK to take something to ease pain and lower a fever, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Always check drug labels for side effects, and follow the instructions for taking the medicine. Make sure it won't mix poorly with any other medications you're taking or health problems you have -- ask your doctor or pharmacist if you’re not sure.

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Natural Cold Remedies

Maybe you've heard that vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc are good for a cold.

They aren’t cures, but vitamin C and zinc may shorten the length of an illness. Research on echinacea has been mixed. Before you try these products, check with your doctor to make sure they’ll work well with other medicines you’re taking.

Nasal strips can also help you breathe easier, since they can enlarge nasal passages while you wear them.

Other more traditional remedies might help relieve common cold discomfort, too.

  • Drink plenty of liquids, including chicken soup. It can make you feel better.
  • To relieve a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water, use throat sprays, and suck on ice or lozenges.
  • Try a saltwater nasal rinse. These can help with a stuffy or runny nose.
  • Use petroleum jelly on your nose if it’s irritated from constant blowing. Facial tissues with added lotions can help prevent, and heal, redness and soreness.
  • Use a humidifier to help break up phlegm.

Do what you can to make yourself as comfortable as possible, and rest while your body fights the cold virus.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on July 06, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Cold Symptom Relief,” “Cold versus Flu.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Disease & Conditions.”

Consumer Reports: “Can I take a Decongestant Pill and a Nasal Spray at the Same Time?”

Familydoctor.org: “Understanding your OTC Options.”

Medline Plus: “Guaifenesin,” “Dextromethorphan,” “Humidifiers & Health,” “Phenylephrine,” “Pseudoephedrine.”

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Colds and the flu."

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “The Common Cold: Treatment."

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “The Flu, the Common Cold, and Complementary Health Practices.”

OTCSafety.org: “Nasal Decongestants.”

Science, M. Canadian Medical Association Journal, published online May 7, 2012.

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