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A Guide to Cold Medicine for Adults

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on July 08, 2019

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. If you have nasal or sinus congestion, then a decongestant can be helpful.

Decongestants can make some people hyper or keep them awake.

They can also increase blood pressure and heart rate, and raise the chance of heart attacks and strokes. Pseudoephedrine is the primary oral decongestant available. In general, if your blood pressure is well-controlled with medications, a decongestant shouldn't be a problem as long as you monitor your blood pressure. This may not be true with certain types of blood pressure drugs. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about what may be best for you.

Nasal decongestants work fast to open breathing passages. But if you use them for more than 3 days in a row, you may have a "rebound effect" and end up more congested than you were at the start. Some doctors suggest using a saline spray instead of a medicated spray. Saline spray works more slowly but has no rebound effect.

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. Antihistamines can make secretions thick, which can be a problem for people with asthma.

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.

An occasional cough may clear the lung of pollutants and excess phlegm and probably shouldn't be treated. But a cough that won’t go away should be diagnosed and treated.

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.

Fever may be a good thing. It helps the body fight off infection by suppressing the growth of bacteria and viruses and activating the immune system. Doctors no longer recommend fighting fever for most people, except perhaps for the very young, the very old, and those with certain medical conditions such as heart disease or lung disease. But if you’re uncomfortable, it's fine to take these medications.

Young people (including those in their early 20s), however, should avoid aspirin. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) are best. Each type of medicine has risks, so check with your doctor or pharmacist as to which type of pain reliever or fever reducer is best for you.

Drinking lots of fluids and using salt water gargles (made by mixing a cup of warm water and a teaspoon of salt) can often ease the pain of a sore throat. Some oral medications (such as Tylenol) and medicated lozenges and gargles can also temporarily soothe a sore throat. Check with your doctor before using any medications, including over-the-counter drugs, and don't use lozenges or gargles for more than a few days. The drugs could mask signs of strep throat, a bacterial infection that should be treated with antibiotics.

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.

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.

Continued

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

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.

The American Academy of Family Physicians.

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