Colds are caused by viruses; in fact, there are over 200 different viruses that cause colds. There are no medications to cure colds. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. However, there are a variety of products that may reduce cold symptoms. Many of these can be bought without a prescription. The main types of over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications are:

  • Analgesics
  • Antitussives
  • Expectorants
  • Oral and Nasal Decongestants
  • These medications may help reduce your symptoms. However, see your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • High fever (temperature above 102ºF [39ºC]) , skin rash, or continuing headache
  • Symptoms lasting more than 10-15 days or getting worse instead of better
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling faint
  • Confusion or feeling disoriented
  • Earache or drainage from your ear
  • Severe pain in your face or forehead
  • Swollen glands in the neck or jaw
  • People with moderate to severe pulmonary or cardiac disease, such as asthma , chronic bronchitis , emphysema , angina , and hypertension , should consult with their doctor early in the course of their symptoms and before taking any medication. Children should also be seen earlier in the course of their illness, especially if they are very young.


    Analgesics relieve aches and pains and reduce fever. The main types include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen
  • How These Medications Work

    Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen, and naproxen, slow the formation of certain prostaglandins. These are substances in the body that are involved in various processes including pain and body temperature. Acetaminophen probably works in a similar way, but it lacks the anti-inflammatory effects of NSAIDS.

    Proper Use

    Take analgesics with food and a glass of water to decrease the chance of stomach upset. Delayed-release and extended-release tablets have a special coating that makes them easier on the stomach.

    Possible Side Effects

    Possible side effects of analgesics include:

  • Abdominal or stomach cramps, pain, or discomfort
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Easy bruising
  • Rash
  • With every medication, there are important precautions to consider. These include allergies, interactions with other drugs and medical conditions, and safety during pregnancy, lactation, and other stages of life.