Posts Tagged ‘Over-the-counter meds’

Pharmacy and grocery store shelves are full of over-the-counter cold and cough medicines.  Which one do you choose, or are you better off not taking anything?  Do they help or make the cold last longer?  What about side effects?

Woman coughing.

Nothing cures or shortens the common cold.  Most colds usually go away in 7 to 10 days.  Since colds are caused by viruses and antibiotics don’t kill viruses your doctor will usually not give you anything unless you have had it for over 10 days.  Over-the-counter medicines don’t shorten or cure the cold either.  They just provide some relief from the symptoms. 

Why do we get more colds/coughs in the winter?  A study of the rhinovirus (causes the common cold) found it reproduces at lower temperatures.  Our nose usually gets colder than our core body temperature when we are out in the cold winter air.   This makes it easier for us to get a cold.  Washing our hands becomes important so we don’t spread the germs or get someone else’s germs.  

Should we take some medication?  Or what really works?

  • Antihistamines may help dry up a runny nose and help itchy, watery eyes. They can also cause drowsiness in some people and excited or restless in others.  The elderly is at risk of falling as many times antihistamines cause confusion and dizziness.  Antihistamines can also cause an irregular heartbeat. If you have glaucoma, an enlarged prostate, breathing problems, high blood pressure or heart disease check with your doctor before taking antihistamines.   
  • Pain relievers can help relieve fever, aches, and pains.  Be careful as many products have dosages in them. High dosages of acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
  • Cough suppressants can be slightly sedating.  The cough suppressant dextromethorphan has few other side effects.  An expectorant such as guaifenesin helps you clear mucous from your airways. However, it keeps me awake, and what I need when I am sick is sleep and rest. 

The best cough suppressant may be honey. Grandma knew best!  Add a teaspoon or two to a cup of tea or swallow it off the spoon.  Caution: Never give honey to infants younger than a year old. 

  • Nasal decongestants may be helpful in clearing up your nose. However, if you have high blood pressure or our taking blood pressure medication don’t take decongestants.  It is best to only take these for a short amount of time as they lose their effectiveness over time.  Nasal sprays should not be used for longer than 3-5 days as they can cause congestion. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any over-the-counter cough and cold medications for children under the age of six, due to a lack of conclusive evidence that they work and increased reports of adverse events or even mortality.

Stop taking any over-the counter medications if you have these symptoms:

  • An allergic reaction like a rash, hives, peeling skin, wheezing, tightness in chest or throat, trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking, or swelling of face or throat.  Check with your doctor or get medical help if severe. 
  • Dark urine, feeling tired, light-colored stools, throwing up or yellow skin or eyes which can be signs of liver problems. 
  • Not able to pass urine or a change in urine.
  • Dizziness, feeling nervous, excitable, unable to sleep. 

What works?

  • The neti pot or nasal irrigation helps with breathing until the mucus builds up again.  No side effects with the neti pot. 
  • Getting extra rest.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking lots of liquids, water, juice, soup, or broth.  Water is a good expectorant too. 
  • Honey can help with a cough.  See information above. 
  • Eat a healthy diet, especially vegetables and fruit, which can help you maintain health.
  • Vitamin C and Zinc may help but no affirmative studies have shown they do. 
  • Wash your hands often to prevent getting other’s germs or spreading yours.

Author:  Pat Brinkman, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator, Ohio State University Extension



Bykov, K. (2020). Cough and Cold Season is Arriving:  Choose Medicines Safely.  Harvard Health Blog at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cough-and-cold-season-is-arriving-choose-medicines-safely-2020092220981

Graham, E. (2020). The Do’s and Don’ts of Cough and Cold Medicines. Safe Medication  at http://www.safemedication.com/safemed/PharmacistsJournal/The-Dos-and-Donts-of-Cough-and-Cold-Medicines

Wiley, F. (2015). Tough Out a Cold or Medicate It? Good Question.  Available at https://medshadow.org/tough-out-a-cold-or-medicate-it-good-question/

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