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Before you take medication for your sniffles and cough, consider how it may affect your health.

When you have a cold, it’s not unusual to feel miserable. That’s why so many people turn to over-the-counter (OTC) medications in the hopes of reducing or eliminating symptoms.

The cold and flu aisle at your local pharmacy is filled with a seemingly endless supply of remedies offering symptom relief. But keep in mind there is no cure for the common cold and medication won’t shorten the duration of your illness. It may even cause side effects more bothersome than the symptoms it is being taken to decrease.

If the cold bug hits, the best thing you can do is to follow mom’s No. 1 rule – get plenty of rest and fluids. If you also want to take medication, here’s what to use based on your symptoms:

  • Nasal or sinus congestion – Decongestants
  • Runny nose and sneezing – Antihistamines
  • Dry, hacking cough – Cough suppressants
  • Cough with mucus – Expectorants
  • Aches, pains and fever – Pain relievers such as acetaminophen and NSAIDs
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“When you start experiencing symptoms of a cold/cough begin drinking plenty of fluids as this can thin out the mucus. Take a warm hot bath and if you feel like you need something for the cough start with Mucinex DM, which contains a cough suppressant (Dextromethorphan) and expectorant (Guaifenesin) to help you cough it up. If you are taking a MAOI inhibitor, which is a prescription drug used for Depression, Parkinson’s, or psychiatric condition do not take Mucinex DM. If you are unsure you are on a MAOI inhibitor ask your pharmacist or physician. He/she can look over your medication list. If your cough occurs for more than a week, you develop a fever, or your symptoms begin to worsen call your primary care provider for further evaluation.”

Kristen D. Talbot, MD, Internal Medicine

Here are some things to consider when taking any type of OTC cold medication:

  • Many remedies have side effects. For example, decongestants can cause sleeplessness and antihistamines may cause drowsiness.
  • Combination cold medications provide relief for multiple symptoms, but you may be taking medicine you don’t need.
  • If you take more than one medication, check labels to make sure you’re not taking multiple medications with the same active ingredient or you may be getting too high a dose.
  • Most combination cold medications include a pain reliever/fever reducer – usually acetaminophen (Tylenol). If you also take additional acetaminophen, it may cause liver damage.
  • OTC cold medicines can impact these chronic health conditions:
    • High blood pressure: Some decongestants increase blood pressure or heart rate. Look for brands labeled safe for people with HBP.
    • Asthma or emphysema: Be careful when using expectorants and antihistamines, which can thicken nasal secretions and aggravate breathing problems.
    • Diabetes:  Many liquid cold medicines, cough drops and syrups have added sugar so check labels.

Ask your doctor how different OTC medicines and brands affect chronic health conditions or medications you take. It is best to have this conversation before you get sick so you know what is safe to use when symptoms flare up.  You can also ask your pharmacist.


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Date Last Reviewed: November 29, 2018

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

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