Nonprescription Medicines and Products - Cold and Allergy Remedies

In general, whether you take medicines for your cold or not, you'll get better in about a week. Rest and liquids are the best treatment for a cold. Antibiotics will not help. But nonprescription medicines help relieve some cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion and cough. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

Allergy symptoms, especially runny nose, often respond to antihistamines. Antihistamines are also found in many cold medicines, often together with a decongestant.


Decongestants make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose, allowing air to pass through. They also help relieve runny nose and postnasal drip, which can cause a sore throat.

Decongestants can be taken orally or used as nose drops or sprays. Oral decongestants (pills) provide longer relief, but they cause more side effects.

Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other drugs than oral decongestants are. Saline nose drops are not decongestants but may help keep nasal tissues moist so the tissues can filter air.

Your pharmacist can suggest a medicine for your cold and allergy symptoms.

Decongestant precautions

  • Check the label before you use these medicines. They may not be safe for young children.
  • If you use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight. Not everyone needs the same amount of medicine.
  • Decongestants can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, or an overactive thyroid. Decongestants may also interact with some drugs, such as certain antidepressants and high blood pressure medicines. Read the package carefully slideshow.gif or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose the best decongestant for you.
  • Don't use the ones for the nose longer than the label says. Continued use will cause a "rebound effect" in which your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
  • Drink extra fluids when you are taking cold medicines.
  • If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using a decongestant.

Steroid nasal spraysSteroid nasal sprays camera.gif help relieve a stuffy nose also. They work in a different way than decongestant medicines work. And they don't cause a rebound effect. They start working quickly, but it may be several weeks before you get the full effect.


Cough preparations

Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and mucus out of your respiratory tract camera.gif. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to impair breathing or prevent rest.

There are two types of coughs: productive and nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). It's generally best if you don't try to stop (suppress) a productive cough. A nonproductive cough does not produce sputum. It is a dry cough.

Water and other liquids, such as fruit juices, are good cough syrups. They help soothe the throat and also moisten and thin mucus so it can be coughed up more easily.

You can make a simple and soothing cough syrup at home by mixing 1 part lemon juice with 2 parts honey. Use as often as needed. This can be given to children 1 year and older.

There are two kinds of cough medicines:

  • Expectorants help thin the mucus and make it easier to cough mucus up when you have a productive cough. Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin.
  • Suppressants control or suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you awake. Don't suppress a productive cough too much (unless it is keeping you from getting enough rest).

Cough preparation precautions

  • Cough preparations can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an enlarged prostate (BPH). Cough preparations may also interact with sedatives, certain antidepressants, and other medicines. Read the package carefully, or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose.
  • Cough suppressants can stifle breathing. Use them with caution if you are older than 60 or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
  • Be careful with cold medicines. They may not be safe for young children, so check the label first. If you do give these medicines to a child, always follow the directions about how much to give based on the child's age and weight.
  • Read the label so you know what the ingredients are. Some cough preparations contain a large percentage of alcohol, and others contain codeine. There are many choices. Ask your pharmacist to advise you.
  • Avoid cold remedies that combine medicines to treat many symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol if you are taking medicine with dextromethorphan in it.
  • If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using a cough preparation.



Antihistamines dry up nasal secretions and are commonly used to treat allergy symptoms and itching.

There are two types:

  • Older, first-generation antihistamines (such as chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine). These may make you sleepy or make it harder for you to concentrate. They can also affect your coordination, even when they do not make you drowsy.
  • Newer, second-generation antihistamines (such as cetirizine and loratadine). These have fewer side effects. Many of the newer antihistamines cause less drowsiness than older antihistamines or cause no drowsiness at all.

If your runny nose is caused by allergies, an antihistamine may help. For cold symptoms, home treatment and perhaps a decongestant will probably be more helpful. It is usually best to take only single-ingredient allergy or cold preparations, instead of those containing many active ingredients.

Products such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are single-ingredient antihistamine products.

Products such as Coricidin, Dristan, and Triaminic contain both a decongestant and an antihistamine.

Antihistamine precautions

  • Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
  • Use of antihistamines to treat the stuffiness of a cold will often thicken the mucus, making it harder to get rid of.
  • Drink extra fluids when taking antihistamines.
  • Avoid alcohol when taking antihistamines.
  • Antihistamines can cause problems for some people with health problems such as asthma, glaucoma, epilepsy, or an enlarged prostate. Antihistamines may also interact with certain antidepressants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose one that will not cause problems.
  • When you take an antihistamine that makes you drowsy, the drowsiness usually decreases with continued use. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if the medicine still makes you drowsy or if the medicine isn't helping your symptoms after 1 week. You may want to try an antihistamine that doesn't cause drowsiness.
  • If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using an antihistamine.
WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
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