5 Tips for Choosing a Cold-reduction Medicine

By: Shanna Freeman

It may be the common cold, but it's still miserable when it happens to you. View more staying healthy pictures.
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How many times have you heard "it's just a cold"? In the grand scheme of things a cold isn't the end of the world, but it can make us so miserable that we're desperate to start feeling better -- and fast. The good news is that if you're healthy and your immune system is in good shape, you'll probably be totally back to normal in a week or two. The bad news is that there's no cure for the common cold. Unfortunately, since most colds are caused by a virus and not bacteria, drugs like antibiotics don't do any good. The most that we can hope for is managing the symptoms until the cold runs its course.

Most cold sufferers complain of symptoms such as fever, head and body aches, congestion, a runny nose, a cough or a sore throat. However, a visit to the cold-medicine aisle at your local pharmacy can leave you feeling confused about what to get to help you deal with these symptoms. And your hurry to find some relief could result in making some serious mistakes when choosing a cold-reduction medicine.


Worry not: We have five great tips for helping you choose the right cold medicine for your symptoms. Let's start with the ingredients list.

5: Watch For Overlapping Ingredients

A multisymptom medicine may not always be the best solution.
A multisymptom medicine may not always be the best solution.
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There are a lot of different medications on the market that can be used to treat your cold symptoms, and you probably already have some of them in your medicine cabinet at home. For example, what do you reach for when you have a headache? We all have our preferences, whether it's acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Motrin), naproxen sodium (such as Aleve) or that old standby, aspirin. (By the way, brand names don't really matter if the ingredients are the same.) Suppose you get a headache and you take a couple of acetaminophen tablets. Then a few hours later, you realize that you're getting a stuffy nose and a sore throat. What should you take next?

A multisymptom cold/flu medication such as DayQuil might initially seem like a good idea, because the package states that it will help relieve your cold symptoms. However, if you take a look at the active ingredients, you'll see that acetaminophen is one of them. Your acetaminophen bottle probably advises you to take two 325 milligram tablets or caplets every four to six hours. If you take that combination medicine within a few hours of taking the plain Tylenol, you'll be taking more acetaminophen than you should. Acetaminophen overdosing can have serious side effects, so it's better to be safe than sorry. Either wait until you're out of that four- to six-hour window, or take medications without acetaminophen to treat your other symptoms.


4: Treat Only Your Symptoms

As we mentioned, it's tempting to take a multisymptom cold medicine whenever you have some of the symptoms of a cold. Taking just one medication is simpler, safer and less expensive than buying multiples. Multisymptom medicines are great if you actually have all or most of the symptoms that they claim to treat. But if you don't, consider looking at more specialized medications.

The various types of cough syrups on the market are a good example of this. If you just have a dry, irritating cough, look for a medicine that only contains a cough suppressant. But if your cough also includes a sore throat, look for one that contains both a cough suppressant and acetaminophen to relieve the pain.


If you have congestion and a cough, look for a cough medication that also contains an expectorant (which loosens and thins mucus). What's the big deal about taking medicine that you don't really need? The potential side effects. An expectorant like guaifenesin, for example, can cause nausea and vomiting. At the very least, you could end up with very dry mucosal passages and chapped lips if you don't actually have thick mucus. So why risk the potentially unpleasant side effects of a drug that you didn't need in the first place?

3: Check for Drug and Other Interactions

The other medications you take can interact with your cold reduction medicine.
The other medications you take can interact with your cold reduction medicine.

If a doctor asks you what medications you're on, what comes to mind? Many people only list their prescription medications, but over-the-counter medications -- including vitamins, supplements and herbals -- all need to be considered. Since we often choose to treat cold symptoms ourselves without a doctor's visit (and since he or she may just tell you to take over-the-counter stuff anyway), you might forget this crucial step when choosing a cold-reduction medication.

That's why it's necessary to do your research. Combination cold medications, for example, shouldn't be taken by people who are also on monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors -- used to treat illnesses such as depression and anxiety -- due to potentially dangerous interactions. It's also important to take other health conditions into consideration. You may not think that your high blood pressure would have anything to do with your cold, but you need to be careful when taking decongestants such as pseudoephedrine. Decongestants narrow the blood vessels in your nose to get rid of stuffiness, so they can also narrow other blood vessels and raise your blood pressure. There are cold medications specifically for people with high blood pressure that your doctor can recommend.


If you're not sure about which cold-reduction medications are OK for you, call your doctor's office. Many of them have "advice lines" staffed by nurses who can answer questions. You can also talk to your pharmacist, who can look for potential interactions between cold medicine you're interested in and prescriptions you already have.

2: Follow Dosing Instructions

If a little is good, more is better ... right? That reasoning may hold true for some things -- ice cream comes to mind -- but it's definitely not true when it comes to cold-reduction medication.

It's important to pay close attention to the instructions on the packaging so you can get the relief you need while avoiding an overdose. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's actually pretty easy to get confused when taking medication. If you look at the dosing instructions for some types of cold-reduction medicine, the directions state to take two tablets or caplets every four to six hours. Others, however, indicate that you should take one dose every four to six hours, increasing to two tablets at a time if your symptoms continue. In addition, dosing instructions can change. Always double-check the package before taking the medicine.


Liquid cold-reduction medications should always be taken using the dosage cup provided. If you don't have it, don't just take a swig from the bottle or use a household tablespoon, which won't be accurate. You can buy replacement cups or special medicine spoons (usually plastic with a hollow handle) that are calibrated correctly. Many of these types of medications, like the multisymptom nighttime variety, contain ingredients that can make you sleepy, so getting the dose wrong can be dangerous.

1: Take Nighttime Medications at Night and Vice Versa

Let's not beat around the bush: When your cold is at its worst and you're aching, shivering, coughing and you can't breathe, many of us turn to that famous multisymptom nighttime cold medicine that claims to help us sleep.

NyQuil and medicines like it contain ingredients such as dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant. This particular ingredient can also cause hallucinations. This effect usually occurs only when taken in dangerously high doses, but some people can feel these effects even with lower doses. Another common ingredient in multisymptom nighttime cold medicines, the antihistamine doxylamine succinate, works to combat sneezing and runny noses. But it also functions as a sleep aid. Finally, there's often alcohol in the ingredient list as well. So there's a reason why medications are dubbed "nighttime" -- they can make you feel groggy, woozy and drowsy. Taking them at any other time is a recipe for disaster unless you're prepared to stay in bed all day.


On the other hand, taking a daytime cold-reduction medicine can result in a sleepless night. Mainly we're talking about decongestants here, which you can buy singly or as part of a multisymptom medication. Phenylephrine, the most commonly used over-the-counter decongestant in the United States, can cause restlessness, irritability, dizziness and sleeplessness. Look for cold-reduction medicines that are labeled "non-drowsy" if you need to be able to function during the day while you're sick.

There's nothing fun about having a cold, but with a little knowledge and research, you can find relief from your symptoms when you choose the right cold reduction medicine. Feel better soon!

Lots More Information

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  • Alexander, Tania. "How to choose the right cure when you're full of cold symptoms." Daily Mail Online. Nov. 26, 2007 (Oct. 30, 2010)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-496602/How-choose-right-cure-youre-cold-symptoms.html
  • AskDrSears. "Cold and Cough Medicine Guide." AskDrSears.com. 2008. (Oct. 30, 2010)http://www.askdrsears.com/html/8/T089800.asp
  • DiJusto, Patrick. "What's Inside: NyQuil." Wired Magazine. Oct. 23, 2007. (Nov. 1, 2010)http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/15-11/st_nyquil
  • Food & Drug Administration. "FDA Releases Recommendations Regarding Use of Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Products." FDA. June 18, 2009 (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2008/ucm116839.htm
  • Harvard Health Publications. "Cough Medicines: Which cold and cough medications are ineffective?" Harvard Letter. May 2010. (Oct. 30, 2010)http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/cough-medicines
  • Proctor & Gamble. "DayQuil Cold & Flu Relief Liquid Medicine Package Information." Vicks.com. 2010 (Nov. 1, 2010)http://www.vicks.com/products/dayquil/cold-flu-liquid-medicine/
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Common cold." Medline Encyclopedia. Jan. 10, 2010 (Nov. 1, 2010)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000678.htm
  • WebMD. "Cold Medicine and Treatment: When? What? How?" WebMD. 2010 (Oct. 31, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/cold-guide/cold-medicine-treatment-when-what-how