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Healthy Balance

Are You Taking the Right Cold Medicine?

Woman blowing her nose at the pharmacy
Over-the-counter medicines are not a cure to your illness, but they can make you feel better while the cold runs it’s course.

Before you take cold medicine 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

Consider this for 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:

    Can’t beat this cold?

    Make an appointment with one of UVA’s Primary Care doctors.

    • 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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