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Which Over the Counter Medications Should I Use for My Cold Symptoms?

Written By northidahodpc

Which Over the Counter Medications Should I Use for My Cold Symptoms?

November 5, 2011

Cold season is upon us.  Many of us are confused when we venture into the cold remedy aisle at the local supermarket, looking for relief from our runny nose, cough, sore throat and aches and pains.  The following guide can help you pick the right medication for your particular symptoms:

  1. Runny Nose: A runny nose is best treated with an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benedryl) and/or a decongestant like pseudoephredine (Sudafed).  Decongestant nasal sprays such as Afrin are helpful but shouldn’t be used for longer than 3 days.  Antihistamines have a slower onset of action than decongestants.  People with certain medical problems including hypertension, glaucoma, heart rhythm abnormalities and urinary problems, as well as the elderly, should be careful with these medications.
  2. Cough: For a cough, we recommend an expectorant like guaifenesin, which loosens mucous, combined with a cough suppressant, such as dextromethorphan.  When taken as directed, these medications are quite safe.  Frequently these medications are combined into one preparation, such as Robitussin.  Antihistamines and decongestants can also curb cough by decreasing drainage down the back of the throat.  Increasing fluids and using a vaporizer or humidifier increases the effectiveness of expectorants at loosening mucus.
  3. Sore Throat: topical numbing sprays and analgesic lozenges can provide relief, and pain medications such as Tylenol and ibuprophen are usually quite effective.  Try gargling with salt water…this can provide some added pain control and has a mild antiseptic effect.  Zinc gluconate (Cold Eeze) has been shown to decrease the severity and duration of a viral infection.  Although it temporarily alters the sense of taste, I make this the cornerstone of therapy almost immediately after I start feeling ill.
  4. Fever: Tylenol or ibuprophen works well for a fever.  I would lean towards Tylenol in children.  It is okay to leave a low grade fever alone (around 100 degrees orally), as low grade fevers seem to speed healing.  However, a fever of 101 degrees or higher should be brought down, and consideration should be made to visiting the physician.  Higher fevers usually suggest a bacterial infection, necessitating antibiotic therapy.  Very high fevers can also cause dehydration, brain damage and seizures, especially in children.
  5. Aches and Pains: Again, Tylenol or ibuprophen work well.  Tylenol is preferred in children.  Avoid aspirin in kids because of the risk of Reye’s Syndrome.  Ibuprophen should be used with caution in people with high blood pressure, kidney or liver disease or history of ulcer.  Tylenol is risky in people with liver problems.   Shower massage or hot tub soaks can naturally relax aching muscles or a throbbing headache.

If your cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, or dramatically worsen in the meantime, medical care should be sought.  Respiratory distress, high fever, throat obstruction, neck rigidity, coughing blood, dehydration, chest pain when breathing or coughing and bloody nasal discharge are only a few warning signs that the infection may be more than a simple cold.  For more information, see also When to go to the Doctor for a Cold.

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