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Choosing the Right Cold and Flu Medicines


Ellen Greenlaw

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8 Myths About the Common Cold

These pieces of advice may be popular, but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate.

When to See Your Doctor for a Cold or the Flu

When cough syrup and chicken soup aren’t doing the trick, it may mean your cold or flu is something more serious.
Several medicine bottles

When you’re sick with a cold or with flu-like symptoms, you want to feel better as quickly as possible. There’s no cure, but there are plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can help relieve symptoms. In fact, there are so many options it can be hard to choose. Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you’re looking for relief from a cold or flu.  Read the labels. All OTC medicines have a “Drug Facts” label on the package. It’s a great source of information. Make sure to look at this label before taking any medicine. On the label you’ll find: 

  • The active ingredients in the medicine. These are the ingredients that make it work.

  • The uses (indications) for the medicine. These are the conditions and symptoms the medicine treats or relieves. Make sure this section lists your symptoms.

  • Any warnings before taking the medicine. This includes who should not take the medicine, when to ask your doctor before using it, and when to stop taking the medicine.

  • Directions for taking the medicine. It’s important to follow these exactly.

Choose medicines that treat your symptoms. Many cold and flu medicines treat more than one symptom at the same time, such as cough, stuffy nose, and fever. Try to choose a medicine that treats only your symptoms. This will help you avoid any unwanted side effects like drowsiness.

Here are the types of medicines that treat common cold and flu symptoms:

  • Antihistamines reduce sneezing and stop a runny nose. Some include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton).

  • Cough suppressants help ease a cough. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant in Robitussin Cough and Vicks 44 Cough and Cold.

  • Expectorants thin mucus so you can cough it up. The only type of OTC expectorant is guaifenesin, found in Robitussin Chest Congestion and Mucinex.

  • Nasal decongestants help clear a stuffy nose. The nasal decongestant phenylephrine is in Sudafed 12-Hour and Sudafed PE.

  • Pain relievers lower fever and ease headache and body aches. Some examples include ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naproxen (Aleve).

Don’t double-dose. Many OTC medicines contain many of the same active ingredients. Before you take more than one medicine, check the labels carefully to make sure they don’t contain the same active ingredient. Be especially careful with pain relievers like acetaminophen. Cold and flu remedies often have pain relievers, so it’s easy to take too much by mistake.  

Know the side effects. All medicines have side effects, even those sold over the counter. Some can make you feel drowsy or interact with certain foods. Make sure you read the label and know the side effects of the medicine(s) before you take them. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

Key Takeaways

  • Look at the "Drug Facts" label before taking any medicine. Note the active ingredients, uses, and warnings.

  • Many OTC medicines contain many of the same active ingredients. Make sure you don’t double-dose.

  • Try to choose a medicine that treats only your symptoms.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Feb 21, 2016

© 2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Get Set for Winter Illness Season. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  2. Medicines in My Home: Know Your Medicines for Colds, Fever, and Pain. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  3. Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  4. Decongestants: OTC Relief for Congestion. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  5. Antihistamines, Decongestants, and Cold Remedies. American Academy of Otolaryngology.

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