What Are 'OTC' Cough and Cold Medicines?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 11, 2023
4 min read

Home sick with a cold, scratchy throat, or cough? There is no cure, but there are plenty of OTC remedies that pledge to help you feel better.

“OTC” products are sold “over the counter,” which means they don’t need a prescription. Some focus on one symptom, like congestion or a cough. Others target several at once.

Use this guide to find the right one for the symptoms you have.

These types of medicines can help you breathe more easily:

Antihistamines block a chemical that makes your nose fill up and run. Studies find antihistamines don't improve cold symptoms much on their own. But they may work better when combined with a decongestant. Some antihistamines can make you drowsier than others, so be aware of the side effects. You might not get tired, at all. But, you will be even more sedated if you drink alcohol with this medicine. So take precautions and be safe about driving or operating machinery. 

Decongestants shrink swollen blood vessels in the nose to relieve congestion. They come in a pill or nasal spray. Decongestants have the opposite side effect of antihistamines -- they can make you jittery. Avoid taking them within a few hours before bed or you might have trouble falling asleep. If you have high blood pressure, ask your doctor if it’s okay to use a decongestant. Also, don't use a decongestant spray for more than three days in a row. Doing so can make your stuffed nose come back.

You usually don't need to treat a cough. It should go away on its own in a few days.

Some OTC cough medicines have an ingredient that stops the reflex that makes you cough. Others contain an agent that will thin your mucus. You might try to suck on a cough drop or hard candy; it could do the trick.

Cough medicines don't often cause side effects in healthy adults. They can make some people feel dizzy or sleepy. Don't take them for more than a few days without your doctor's OK.

There are two kinds of medicines made to treat minor aches and pains from a cold:

Acetaminophenrelieves headaches. It might also help open a stuffed nose. It’s in many cough and cold products as well as in other medicines. Read all the labels and be sure to follow the dosing instructions carefully so you don’t accidentally take too much.

NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are good for aches and pains. If you take a blood-thinning drug, check with your doctor before you take aspirin. And don't give aspirin to kids or teens. It can raise their risk for a rare but serious disease called Reye syndrome.

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin can also ease the pain of a sore throat. Or you can suck on a lozenge or use a throat spray that contains a pain reliever such as benzocaine.

Some over-the-counter cold remedies combine medicines to help with a stuffed nose, cough, body aches, and other symptoms all at once. Before you buy a multi-symptom cold reliever, check that you have every symptom listed on the box. Otherwise, you might treat a symptom you don't have with medicine you don't need.

Most people can buy OTC cold relievers on their own. But if you’re not sure what you need, ask your doctor or pharmacist for some guidance. It’s also a good idea to check with them if you have a medical condition such as glaucoma, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an irregular heart rhythm that prevents you from being able to take decongestants.

Tell your pharmacist about any prescription medicines you take. Some cold medicines can interact with prescription drugs.

Whenever you buy an OTC cold medicine, read the label carefully. Look at these things:

  • Ingredients: Check to see if it has medicines that are already in other drugs you take. For example, if you take a multi-symptom cold remedy and a headache medicine that both contain acetaminophen, you could be taking more than you should. That could damage your liver. You should also check the other ingredients, especially if you are allergic to colors or flavorings.
  • Uses: Learn what symptoms the medicine targets. Only take medicine that treats the symptoms you have.
  • Instructions: Find out how much of the medicine to take and how often you need to take it. Don't take more than the package recommends.
  • Warnings: See what side effects might happen and who should not use the product.


Minor cold symptoms should go away after a few days. Call your doctor if:

  • You're short of breath or are wheezing
  • A cough or stuffed nose lasts more than two weeks or comes back 
  • A sore throat lasts more than five days
  • You have a fever higher than 101.5 F
  • You have pain in your face or sinuses