December Feature Series – Winter Health: Choosing the Right Cold Medication

Choosing the right cold medication can make your life more comfortable.

Caught yet another cold? If you had it your way, you’d probably bury yourself in blankets and sip on chicken soup until it passed. But work and family obligations probably mean you need to maintain your busy schedule even while you’re sick. The right over-the-counter cold medication can help make life more comfortable when you have no choice but to keep moving.

Consider Your Symptoms and Needs

Do you have a runny nose? A sore throat? Chest congestion? Do you need a non-drowsy formula you can take at work or one that will help you sleep? Should you steer clear of any remedies because of other health concerns? These are all important questions to think about when choosing a medication.

Cold Fighting Basics

Behind the Pharmacy Counter

Keep in mind that some effective cold medications are not readily available on the drug store shelves. Under the Patriot Act signed by President Bush in 2006, all medications that contain pseudoephedrine (used in Sudafed™ and other cold medications) must be kept behind the pharmacy counter and must be sold in limited quantities. To purchase one of these products, you must show identification and sign a logbook at the pharmacy counter.

The purpose of these measures is to prevent the manufacturing of methamphetamine, for which pseudoephedrine is used as an ingredient.

  • Decongestants. Decongestants reduce nasal swelling, pressure and congestion but won’t stop your nose from running. Possible side effects include light-headedness, anxiety, insomnia, elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Antihistamines. Antihistamines soothe allergy symptoms, such as itchy or watery eyes, a runny nose and sneezing. Possible side effects include drowsiness, irritability and a "dried-out" feeling.
  • Expectorants. Chest congested? Expectorants help loosen mucus so you can cough it up, thereby relieving congestion.
  • Cough suppressants. Suppressants help quiet a cough—ideal when you’re trying to get some much-needed sleep.
  • Pain relievers. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen relieve sinus or throat pain, fever, headaches and minor body aches—usually without side effects.
  • Combination products. Decongestant-antihistamine combinations relieve congestion along with symptoms like a runny nose and watery eyes. "Sinus formulas," another example, team decongestants with pain relievers to alleviate congestion plus sinus pain or headache. Be aware that some formulas may cause dizziness, upset stomach or insomnia.

Read labels to ensure you get the right dose, and don’t overmedicate. Also drink plenty of fluids and get as much rest as possible to help speed your recovery.

A Spoonful of Precaution

Consider these tips before taking or administering a cold remedy:

  • Follow the dosage instructions on the product label.
  • Read the ingredients. Taking a combination product along with a pain reliever like ibuprofen, or a syrup in addition to a pill, could give you too much of a single ingredient.
  • Be aware of potential side effects.
  • Consult your doctor if you’re taking any other medication, such as prescription drugs for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or thyroid or prostate problems.
  • Choose the remedy you or your loved one can "get down" most easily—tablets, gelcaps, chewables or liquids.
  • Consider nighttime and "maximumength" medications if you need long-term relief.
  • Do not drink alcohol while taking cold medication. Alcohol may potentially cause serious side effects.
  • Check with your child’s pediatrician before buying or administering any medication.
  • Don’t give aspirin or products containing aspirin to children under 18. Aspirin can cause Reye’s syndrome in children and teens, which can lead to severe illness or death.

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