9 Things to Know About Cough and Cold Medicines

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Cindy Kuzma on June 24, 2021
  • Woman sneezing
    9 Things to Know About Cough and Cold Medicines
    Each year, Americans suffer through nearly 1 billion cases of the common cold. You'll find many of them wandering the drugstore aisles, trying to decide which remedy will ease their misery. Avoid this fate by arming yourself with information about common cough and cold treatments before your next illness strikes.
  • Zinc tablets
    1. They Aren't a Cure
    Cough and cold medicines can make you feel better when you're sniffly and achy. They may also help you sleep or get back to your regular activities. However, they can't kill the cold virus or help you recover faster. One possible exception: Oral zinc, which may shorten the duration of colds in adults by about two days.
  • Antihistamines
    2. They Treat Many Symptoms
    Decongestants open up a clogged nose, while expectorants loosen mucus lower in your chest. Antitussives block your cough reflex. Antihistamines stop sneezing and runny noses, while pain relievers treat fever and achiness. Often, one product will contain many of these ingredients. Be selective by choosing remedies that specifically target your symptoms.
  • Woman sneezing by desk
    3. Don't Double-Dose
    Read labels carefully. Don't take two drugs that contain the same active ingredient, including pain relievers. Be especially cautious with acetaminophen (Tylenol). Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage and other serious health problems.
  • Child with cold
    4. Young Children Shouldn't Take Them
    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against giving cough and cold medicine—even children's formulas—to children ages 4 or younger. Harmful side effects can include rapid heart rate, loss of consciousness, and even death. Try vaporizers, saline nose drops, or a rubber suction bulb to ease kids' stuffy noses.
  • Cough medicine
    5. Older Kids Often Abuse Them
    One type of cough suppressant, dextromethorphan, is available in more than 140 cough and cold medicines. Some people—especially teens—take large doses to get high. It's often called robo-tripping, and risks include confusion, increased heart rate, seizures, and death.
  • Man sneezing
    6. Stay Alert for Side Effects
    Like all medicines, cough and cold treatments affect everyone differently. Many people may experience side effects. Common complaints include headaches, upset stomach, insomnia, dry mouth, abdominal pain, dizziness, and drowsiness.
  • Doctor giving medicine
    7. Some People Shouldn't Take Them
    Some cough and cold formulas can cause more serious problems for certain groups. For instance, people with heart problems should avoid decongestants and some antihistamines. Safer alternatives are available. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking these medications if you have a chronic illness or are on a prescription drug.
  • hand holding out pill
    8. Take Only What You Need
    Always take cough and cold medicines exactly as directed. Don't use more hoping for faster or greater relief, and don't take medicines that treat symptoms you don't have. In some cases, medicines taken for one symptom may make another symptom worse. For instance, the drying effects of antihistamines often can make coughs worse.
  • Man reading label
    9. Know When to Say When
    Read labels carefully to see how long you should take each medicine. There are reasons for these limits. For instance, using nasal decongestant sprays for more than three days can cause worse congestion. Call your doctor if your symptoms persist or worsen despite taking medicine more than four times a day, or for longer than two weeks.
9 Things to Know About Cough and Cold Medicines
  1. Antihistamines: Understanding Your OTC Options. American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2012. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/antihistamines-und...
  2. Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options. American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2012. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/cough-medicine-und...
  3. Decongestants: OTC Relief for Congestion. American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2012. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/decongestants-otc-...
  4. Pain Relievers: Understanding Your OTC Options. American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2012. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/pain-relievers-und...
  5. Dextromethorphan (DXM) and Cold Medicine Facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. March 2012. http://teens.drugabuse.gov/peerx/prescription-drug-facts/dextromethorphan
  6. Cold and Cough Medicines: Information for Parents. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sept. 11, 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/PediatricColdMeds/
  7. Symptom Relief. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 1, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/symptom-relief.html
  8. Antihistamines, Decongestants, and Cold Remedies. American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. December 2010. http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/coldRemedies.cfm
  9. Acetaminophen and Liver Injury: Q & A for Consumers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Aug. 9. 2012. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm168830.htm
  10. FAQ: Robo Tripping/Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse. American Society of Anesthesiologists. http://www.lifelinetomodernmedicine.com/Anesthesia-Topics/FAQ-Robo-TrippingOvertheCounter-Drug-Abuse...
  11. Common Cold: Treatment. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Feb. 11, 2011. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/commonCold/Pages/treatment.aspx
  12. Cold and Cough Medicines. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Aug. 2, 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/coldandcoughmedicines.html
  13. Common cold—How to treat at home. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. March 31, 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000466.htm

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Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 24
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