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Over-the-counter cold medicines won’t cure your cold, but they may make you more comfortable so you can rest as your cold 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.


Can’t stop coughing? Suppress it. Cough suppressants, like dextromethorphan, can temporarily stop your cough. They work on the part of the brain that controls coughing.

Does your chest feel heavy? Expectorate. An expectorant, like guaifenesin, can break up congestion in your chest by thinning the mucus in your airways. This way, when you do cough, you can cough up phlegm more easily. Drink plenty of water if you take this medication.

Fever, Aches, and Sore Throat

Fever, aches, and sore throats are usually mild with a cold compared to a more serious illness, such as 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, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. 

Always check drug labels for side effects. Check that the drugs won't interact with any other medications you are taking or health problems you have. Check the label and follow the instructions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you’re not sure.

Natural Cold Remedies

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

These do not cure a cold, but vitamin C and zinc may shorten the length of a cold. Research on echinacea has been mixed. Before trying these products, check with your doctor to make sure there are no interactions with other medicines you are taking.

Nasal strips can also help you breathe easier, since they can temporarily enlarge nasal passages.

Some traditional remedies might help relieve common cold discomfort, too.

  • Drink plenty of liquids, including chicken soup. It has been shown to relieve discomfort when you have a cold.
  • Relieve a sore throat by gargling with warm salt water, using throat sprays, and sucking on ice or lozenges. 
  • Try a saltwater nasal rinse. Studies show that these can help with a stuffy or runny nose.
  • Use petroleum jelly on your nose if it’s irritated from constant blowing. Facial tissue with added lotions can help prevent and heal redness and soreness.
  • Use a humidifier to help break up phlegm.

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