Cold and Cough Over the Counter RELIEF


By: Carley Castelein, PharmD Candidate 2018,Drake University

Walking the aisles near the pharmacy can be a daunting when you are sick and seeking something to make you feel better. There are so many products and each presents its own claim to fame. Here is a short breakdown of a few common active ingredients to look for when you are trying to treat a certain symptom:

  • Sinus and nasal congestion: Pseudoephedrine (commonly known as Sudafed) can be purchased at most pharmacies. It should not be used if you have high blood pressure.
  • Running noses: Antihistamines such as Allegra (fexofenadine), Claritin (loratadine), and Zyrtec (cetirizine) can be used to dry up nasal passageways.
  • Persistent cough: Dextromethorphan, commonly written as DM on products packaging labels can help decrease your coughing frequency and can cause some drowsiness. If you have a dry cough it would be appropriate to use this but if your cough is productive (a lot of mucus) you do not want to suppress it and keep that mucus inside of you! If you have asthma or COPD it is not recommended that you use products with this ingredient.
  • Tight chest caused by mucus: Mucinex (guaifenesin) loosens and thins your mucus secretions making your cough more productive to release the mucus from your body.
  • Nasal irritation: Menthol, found in Vicks, will create an anesthetic (insensitivity to pain) for your nose.

As for zinc, it can block the adhesion of the virus to the nasal tissue and potentially slow the replication process but it must be taken within 24hours of onset and at least every 2 hours while awake. However, it can also irritate your stomach. Vitamin C supplementation for prevention and treatment is very controversial, it may not prevent the cold but it could reduce the duration.

Many of these products come in combination and my advice is to stick to what your symptoms are—if you don’t need it, don’t buy it! Non-pharmacologic treatments are always the safest treatment: stay hydrated, use throat lozenges, and utilize a cool mist vaporizer at night.


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