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What Cold Meds Should I Be Taking?

With every cold of the season comes the question – what should I take for it? There are medications that mask the symptoms, medications that might make them seem worse but drain your sinuses, medications to help you get a good night’s sleep and many more.

We talked with Candyce Collins, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist at Banner Pharmacy Services, to wade through the tide of medication options. She notes we will find the following in the cold and flu aisle at the store:

  • Antihistamines (chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine) are used for a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes often caused by a cold or allergies and can cause drowsiness or help with sleep.
  • Non-drowsy antihistamines (loratadine, cetirizine, fexofenadine) are used for the same symptoms with less sedating side effects.
  • Cough suppressants (dextromethorphan) can be effective in alleviating a hacking, non-productive cough.
  • Expectorants (guaifenesin) help loosen and bring up mucus and other material from the lungs.
  • Pain relievers and fever reducers (acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen) are often found in cold and flu medications to ease body aches and reduce elevated body temperature.
  • Nasal decongestants (oxymetazoline spray, phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine) alleviate a stuffy nose, as well as sinus congestion and pressure.
  • Lozenges containing topical and oral anesthetics (menthol) can relieve throat pain or dryness.

Several products combine some of these treatments into one dose, but that might not always be the best option, as this may increase side effects and interaction risks. You can also take medications that will treat your symptoms individually. For example, a person might take an expectorant when they have a cold, but someone else may find that worsens their cough. Collins notes that some cold and flu medications can interact with other medications you are taking or may not be recommended due to certain health conditions.

“To avoid potential problems, select individual medications based on the cold/flu symptoms you typically experience, or a product containing only the ingredients you need, and first check with your pharmacist or health care provider to be certain the medication won’t negatively impact any medical conditions you may have,” Collins said.

Collins added that there is no guarantee that medications will eliminate symptoms. Always consult your physician if symptoms worsen.

A version of this post originally published December 9, 2014.

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