When you're sick and miserable with a cold, you might grab the first box of cold medicine that you see on the drugstore shelf. But experts say that we should be savvier when choosing a cold medicine.
"Cold medicine" is a big category. None will cure a cold or treat the underlying virus. Instead, different cold medicines target different symptoms -- and have different pros and cons. You have to make sure you're getting the cold medicine you need and not the medicines you don't.
As a symptom of illness, sore
throat rivals fatigue for being both commonplace and a potential sign
of catastrophe. Usually, having a sore throat is nothing to worry about -- most
are caused by cold and
flu germs. In rare cases, however, a sore throat can signal something much
more serious. One of the first symptoms of infection caused by the dreaded ebola virus,
for example, is a sore throat.
And strep bacteria, a common cause of sore throat, especially in children,
can spread like wildfire...
Here's a rundown of popular cold medicines, from decongestants to cough medicine to pain relievers. Remember, always check the drug label for complete instructions on how to take it and possible side effects.
Cold Medicine for a Stuffy Nose
When you're stuffed up, an over-the-counter decongestant could help clear you up, says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association. It can reduce the swelling in your nasal passages, allowing you to breathe through your nose a little easier. There are two types.
Oral decongestants include over-the-counter pills and syrups like phenylephrine (Contac Cold and Flu, Dristan, Sinutab, and Sudafed Congestion PE) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed Congestion).
Like any medicine, these cold medicines can have side effects. They can include nervousness, dizziness, or trouble sleeping. People with high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid problems, diabetes, or an enlarged prostate should check with a doctor before using them. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also check with their doctor before taking any medication. And no one should take a decongestant for more than a week at a time without checking with their doctor.
OTC drugs with pseudoephedrine have been used in the illegal production of methamphetamine. As a result, cold medicines with pseudoephedrine must now be sold behind the pharmacy counter.
Nasal spray decongestants apply the medicine directly to the membranes in your nasal passages. Examples include oxymetazoline (Afrin, Dristan, and Sinex) and phenylephrine (4-Way and Neo-Synephrine.) Nasal decongestants have side effects and risks similar to those of oral decongestants. They can also cause burning, stinging, and dryness in the nose.
Nasal spray decongestants should not be used for more than three days at a time. Why? If you use them for too long and then stop, these cold medicines can actually make your congestion worse. It's called a rebound effect.
Cold Medicine for a Runny Nose
What if you're not really stuffed up, but sneezing and runny-nosed? Antihistamines, such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl), help a runny nose.
"When you have a drippy, leaky nose, antihistamines are good for drying out the nasal passages," Edelman tells WebMD. These cold medicines work by blocking the effects of histamine. This is a chemical that leads to a running nose and sneezing.
But these medicines have one main drawback. They can make you make you sleepy, so avoid alcohol when taking them and be careful when driving.