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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Cold Medicine for Adults: Treat Your Symptoms

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Over-the-counter cold medicines won’t cure your cold, but they might make you more comfortable, 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 you shouldn't use them for more than 2-3 days in a row, or 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 coughing? You have two main choices in the cold-and-flu aisle:

  • Cough suppressants, like dextromethorphan, can stop your cough for a short time. They work on the part of the brain that controls coughing.
  • 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 interact with any other medications you're taking or health problems you have. If you’re not sure, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

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