Common Cold Medicine
Specific Common Cold Medicines Explained
The following sections describe in detail the various medicines that can be used to treat the common cold.
Nasal decongestants open up the nasal passages. These common cold medicines can be applied topically, in the form of sprays or drops, or taken orally (by mouth). Using sprays or drops longer than 3 days may cause nasal congestion to worsen.
Antitussives, also known as cough suppressants, can quiet coughs due to minor throat irritations. This type of common cold medicine includes drugs taken orally (such as throat lozenges), as well as topical medications, for example, ointments to be rubbed on the chest or used in a vaporizer.
Expectorants, which are taken orally, help loosen mucus and make coughs more productive.
Until recently, another category of over-the-counter drugs called "antihistamines" was approved only for use by sufferers of hay fever and other allergies. However, clemastine fumarate, the active ingredient in products such as Tavist-1® and Tavist-D®, has been approved to treat cold symptoms. Nonprescription antihistamines may give you some relief from cold symptoms such as runny nose and watery eyes, which are commonly associated with colds.
The effectiveness of other over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines for this use is still being studied.
Many people take pain relievers for headache, fever, or minor aches. Some examples of pain relievers used as common cold medicine include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol®)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®).
Most common cold medicines have some side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, insomnia, or upset stomach. You should take them with care.
Check with a pediatrician or your family physician before giving any common cold medicine to a child.
Use the dosing device that comes with the common cold medicine, and don't exceed the recommended dosage or length of use. Taking a nasal spray for too long during a cold could result in an even stuffier nose, for example. Always check with a doctor first if the correct dose for a child isn't listed on a label and before giving a child more than one medicine at a time.
It is recommended that older people, who often take multiple medications, check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a new over-the-counter cough and cold medicine, because some medications can worsen underlying health problems, such as high blood pressure or heart disease.
Decongestants can speed up the heart rate, for example, and antihistamines can cause urinary retention in men with prostate problems. For both young and old, antihistamines can make you drowsy, which could affect driving.
Be sure to check expiration dates and get rid of old common cold medicines.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has warned consumers against using OTC and prescription drug products containing phenylpropanolamine, because the ingredient has been associated with an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain). This ingredient was commonly used as a decongestant in OTC and prescription cough and cold medicines before the warning was issued.
If you take more than one medication at a time, be careful not to duplicate ingredients. Look at the active ingredients of every medicine you take. For example, you don't want to take acetaminophen tablets to relieve pain while also taking a cough medicine containing acetaminophen. Too much of this drug can result in liver damage.