How to Choose the Right Cold Medicine

There are hundreds of cold medicines, and choosing the right one can be quite overwhelming when the common cold already has you feeling miserable. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms every time they get sick. Choosing the right over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicine should be based on your specific symptoms. Understanding the different types of cold medicines and what symptoms they aim to treat can help you make the right decision. This is especially important as many OTC cold medicines contain a combination of active ingredients. 


Decongestants are used to treat nasal stuffiness and decrease sinus pressure. Pseudophedrine (Sudafed) or phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) are common ingredients contained in decongestants. These medications may have a stimulant effect in some people leading to racing heart, restlessness and irritability, and should be used with caution in people with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and thyroid dysfunction. Some of these side effects can be avoided by using decongestant nasal sprays rather than oral tablets or capsules. Topical decongestant nasal sprays, however, should only be used for three days to avoid rebound or worsening nasal congestion. 


Expectorants loosen up mucus so that you can cough it up. Mucinex and Robitussin are name brand expectorants that contain the active ingredient guaifenesin. These products may also contain an antitussive or cough suppressant ingredient known as dextromethorphan. Side effects of dextromethorphan may include nausea, vomiting, drowsiness or dizziness.


Antihistamine such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratidine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra) are often marketed as cold medicines. Antihistamines, however, are more helpful in treating symptoms of runny nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes that are associated with allergies and not necessarily caused by having a cold. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), brompheniramine, and chlorpheniramine are antihistamines with drowsy side effects often found in nighttime or PM cold medicines to help promote sleep. 

Remember, the common cold is common and there is no cure. It’s all about managing your symptoms, so look closely at the active ingredients in OTC cold medicines and choose wisely. Doing so will help you target your worse symptoms, save money on unnecessary products and, more importantly, help you avoid over-medicating and potential exposure to harmful side effects. Always take medications as directed. If you’re ever unsure, discuss OTC medication options with your pharmacist or primary care provider.