I recently walked into one of our local pharmacies and I was amazed to see the tremendous number of cold and flu medications filling the shelves. It made me realize how confusing it must be for anyone to decide which of the medications to use.
In this article, I would like to help simplify the selection process. Almost all of these hundreds of products contain at least one of the following ingredients:
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, for aches and pains
- Pseudoephedrine, a decongestant
- Guaifenesin, an expectorant
- Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant
- Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine
We could probably get by with only five different bottles of cold medications on those pharmacy shelves, each containing one of the above medications. I think that taking these drugs individually rather than in combination is better so that one can tailor one’s medications to specific symptoms and avoid taking something that might not be necessary. Always read the label on the medication package to check on potential interactions with drugs you might already be taking and to know the possible side effects or warnings.
Here’s how these drugs work. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen work equally well for relieving the aches and pains of an illness as well as helping to reduce a fever.
Pseudoephedrine, for those who do not have high blood pressure, is fairly effective as a decongestant to help relieve swelling of the nasal and sinus passages and to relieve pressure in the ears due to blocked eustachian tubes. Sudafed has changed from over the counter to behind the counter and will need to be signed out for purchase through the pharmacist. It’s probably worth the effort. Guaifenesin is an expectorant, which means it helps to thin out mucus in the nose and sinuses as well as in the lungs, which makes it easier to either blow out or cough up the mucus.
Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant, which should help a least a little to slow down one’s cough. It is not strong enough to stop a cough and will not interfere with the healing process. Antihistamines are really most useful for allergies like hay fever but they may help colds by slowing down mucous production. Perhaps they help most due to their side effect of drowsiness, which can help one get to sleep. I will discuss the newest guidelines for treating routine upper respiratory infections in infants and children in the near future. The following information restates the advice I gave in my prior article on Influenza.
- For aches and pains from a cold or flu, use Tylenol or Advil.
- For stuffy nose, sinus congestion or plugged ears, use Sudafed.
- To loosen mucus, use guaifenesin such as Mucinex or Robitussin.
- To help suppress a cough, use a medication with dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin DM or Vicks 44.
- Get plenty of rest and drink lots of liquids.
These are some basic guidelines for choosing medications for symptom relief of the common cold and simple flu. See your health care provider if you have a fever for more than four or five days, if you have a fever of more than 103 degrees, or if you have any significant concerns about your health.