Choosing the Right Cold Medicine

Before taking any over-the-counter medicine...

If you are pregnant, nursing, taking prescription medicine or you suffer from chronic health problems, please first consult your doctor.

There’s no cure for the common cold. Colds are caused by many viruses that infect the upper respiratory passage. So, when afflicted with a cold, the only choice is to use medication to lessen symptoms. It is important to choose the right over-the-counter (OTC) medicine for the right symptom. Please remember that the recommendations below are aimed at people with no chronic health conditions. If you have any ongoing health problems, take prescription medications or are pregnant or nursing, please check with your doctor before taking any OTC medication.

  • Decongestants help relieve swelling in the sinuses. This in turn will relieve congestion and, to some degree, pressure in the face and sinuses.
  • Antihistamines can also reduce swelling in the sinuses, but are probably not as effective as decongestants and may cause drowsiness. Because of this, I generally don’t recommend them as being very helpful.
  • Cough suppressants can help with a dry cough by blocking your cough reflex. I recommend them if the cough is keeping you awake when you’re trying to sleep. During waking hours it is probably preferable to let yourself cough up any mucous you are producing.
  • Expectorants are supposed to help thin mucous and make your cough more productive. I don’t find them to be all that effective, but if you try them and find them helpful, then by all means continue to use them.

Don’t forget that many OTC cough and cold preparations have acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen in them. Both of these are helpful for headaches or other aches and pains associated with the cold. Just be sure not to take them with any other medications you may have that contain the same thing. Also, nasal saline rinses can help clear mucous from the nasal airways and are a very natural way to do so.

I generally recommend decongestants, cough suppressants, nasal saline rinses and pain relievers as the most effective over-the-counter remedies. As always, if your illness persists more than 10 days, or you have symptoms that you believe may be more serious — such as a high fever — call your primary care doctor.


Written by Jared Johnson, MD, a family medicine physician with Via Christi Medical Associates on West Maple.



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