When you have a cold, the last thing you feel like doing is trying to choose among the overwhelming amount of over-the-counter cold medications available.
The simplest way to narrow your choices is to consider your symptoms and the products that will treat them specifically. Keep in mind that the following information is geared toward adults, not children.
▪ Cough. There are two basic types of cough medicines — cough suppressants and expectorants. If you just can’t seem to stop coughing, a suppressant containing dextromethorphan should bring you relief. If your chest is really congested, an expectorant containing the ingredient guaifenesin should thin the mucus in your airways so that you can get rid of phlegm more easily. Cough lozenges can also help with irritation and dryness.
▪ Sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes. There are several types of antihistamines that offer relief. Medications that contain diphenhydramine, brompheniramine and chlorpheniramine are effective, but may make you drowsy. Loratadine, fexofenadine and cetirizine have a less sedating effect.
▪ Stuffy nose. A decongestant — either in pill, syrup or spray form — should help you breathe more easily. The pill and syrup form contain ingredients such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. These can increase your blood pressure so be careful. They are stored behind the counter so you’ll have to ask the pharmacist to assist you. Nasal sprays usually contain oxymetazoline or phenylephrine and should be limited to two to three days to avoid rebound and worsening of symptoms. Be cautious about mixing these medicines.
▪ Fever, aches and pains or sore throat. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce fever and fight inflammation. They include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. If you’re already taking an NSAID for another condition, talk with your doctor before taking another NSAID for a cold. Acetaminophen also is a good option for headaches and body aches. If pain persists, see your doctor.
Do not buy a multi-symptom cold medicine unless you have all or most of the symptoms that it claims to be able to treat. You don’t want to risk an unpleasant or harmful side effect for a symptom you’re not experiencing.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure that over-the-counter medicines won’t interact with medications (including vitamins, supplements and herbs) you’re already taking.
If you can tough it out without medicine the best advice is what you’ve undoubtedly heard all of your life. Drink plenty of fluids and rest. Cover your mouth when you cough, and wash your hands to avoid sharing your illness with a friend.
Dr. W. Jeffrey Foxx is a family medicine physician with Family Practice Associates of Lexington.