Health & Wellness

Cold & Flu Medicine Guide

If you have ever browsed the cold medicine aisle of your local drug store, you know that it can sometimes feel overwhelming. With so many products available and each containing different combinations of active ingredients, how do you know which one is right for you? Perhaps you mainly have a stuffed-up nose and cough and would like to select the most appropriate product so you don’t end up taking unnecessary medications. Which one should you choose?

If you have ever wondered this, this fundamental guide to cold medications is for you. Read on, and shop like a pro the next time you need one.

Checking the Label


Before purchasing any medication, always check the Drug Facts label to see which Active Ingredients it contains, and how much it contains of each. While a combo product with several active ingredients may seem like a silver bullet, if you only have one or two symptoms, you would likely benefit more from selecting a product with only the appropriate active ingredient, as most of the time it will contain a more effective dose.

Choosing the Right Medication

So what are the active ingredients you should look out for? The following is a breakdown of the most common medication ingredients and the specific symptoms they treat.

– Cough –

Problem: That annoying, hacking cough that comes with a cold
Key ingredient to look for: 

What to know about it: Often abbreviated as “DM,” dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant that is often effective at soothing those annoying cold-related coughs.

– Mucous –

Problem: Thick mucous in your throat that you can’t clear
Key ingredient to look forGuaifenesin

What to know about it: Guaifenesin can be found both by itself (often sold as Mucinex) or as part of a combination cold medication. It works by thinning the mucous in the back of your throat, helping you drain it out.

– Congestion –

Problem: Nasal/sinus congestion, Overall “stuffy head feeling”
Key ingredients to look forPhenylephrine, Pseudoephedrine 

What to know about themThese work by temporarily shrinking the tiny blood vessels that stop up the nose. While pseudoephedrine is more effective at relieving head congestion than phenylephrine, most of the time you have to ask for it at the pharmacy counter (but does not require a prescription).

Word of Caution: If you have high blood pressure, both pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine can further increase your blood pressure. As a general rule, always ask your doctor before using any over-the-counter medications.

– Itchiness –

Problem: Itchy eyes, itchy nose…itchy anything
Key ingredients to look forLoratadine, Cetirizine, *Diphenhydramine (*Sedating)

What to know about them: Often used to treat allergies, common brand names include Claritin, Zyrtec, and Benadryl. The main difference to know is that loratadine and cetirizine aren’t likely to make you drowsy. Benadryl will make you sleepy, but that can be a good thing when you need to get some rest.

– Fever & Pain –

Problem: Fever, headache, and general aches and pains
Key ingredient to look forAcetaminophen

What to know about it: Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) is often included in combination cold medications. If you are taking several different cold medications at the same time, always check the ingredients to ensure that you are not taking two products with acetaminophen, as too much of this can damage your liver.

– Difficulty Sleeping –

Problem: You need something to help you sleep for several hours
Key ingredient to look for: Diphenhydramine, Doxylamine

What to know about them: Diphenhydramine is interesting in that it is sold as both a cold and allergy medication (Benadryl) and as solely a sleep aid (Sominex). If you are looking for something to make you drowsy, diphenhydramine and doxylamine are the ingredients to look for. Similarly, if you want to make sure that the medication you take will not make you drowsy, avoid products with these ingredients.

Natural Remedies for Cold Symptoms

Even with the many medications available out there, there are many things that you can do at home naturally to provide symptom relief and to help your body recover more quickly:

◊ Stay hydrated. This is essential, as a dehydrated body has a more difficult time healing. Drinking water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon water with honey can help loosen mucous while keeping you hydrated. Avoid alcohol, coffee, and caffeinated sodas, as these can make dehydration worse.

◊ Rest. When it comes to colds and flu, time heals. Every viral infection (colds and flu are both viral infections) needs to run their course, and there is no magic bullet to replace a period of proper rest.

◊ Salt water gargle. If you have a sore or scratchy throat, a saltwater gargle — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water — can provide some mild relief.

◊ Sip warm liquids. Liquids such as chicken soup, tea, or warm apple juice can be both soothing while helping to relieve some congestion by increasing mucous flow.

◊ Add moisture to the air. A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier can add moisture to your home, which can also help loosen congestion. If you use one, be sure to change the water daily and clean the unit according to instructions.

Here’s to better health during the winter season!

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