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:
AnalgesicsAntitussivesExpectorantsOral 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 headacheSymptoms lasting more than 10-15 days or getting worse instead of betterShortness of breathFeeling faintConfusion or feeling disorientedEarache or drainage from your earSevere pain in your face or foreheadSwollen 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: AcetaminophenAspirinIbuprofenNaproxen
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.
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.
Accidental Overdosage—Many OTC medications as well as prescription pain medications contain acetaminophen. Although acetaminophen is quite safe when used as directed, it can cause liver damage when taken in excess. Make sure to read the labels and do not double up on acetaminophen.
Children and Teens—Aspirin is not recommended for children and teens with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving aspirin to a child or teen. Children can be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Pregnancy—Acetaminophen is usually considered the safest pain and fever reducer to use during pregnancy. Do not take aspirin during pregnancy unless your doctor has ordered it.
Alcohol—If you will be taking more than an occasional one or two doses of acetaminophen, do not drink alcohol. Doing so may increase the chance of liver damage, especially if you drink large amounts of alcoholic beverages regularly, if you take more acetaminophen than is recommended on the package label, or if you take it regularly for a long time.
Certain Conditions—If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an analgesic:
Alcohol abuseKidney or liver diseasePeptic ulcerPhenylketonuria (PKU)Severe allergiesBleeding disordersPregnancy
Possible side effects of analgesics include:
Abdominal or stomach cramps, pain, or discomfortHeartburn or indigestionNausea or vomitingDiarrheaLightheadednessRinging in the earsEasy bruisingRash
Antitussive medications, also called cough suppressants, are used to control coughing; however, there is limited evidence that they work. The main nonprescription antitussive is dextromethorphan.
Dextromethorphan is thought to relieve cough by acting directly on the cough center in the brain to depress the cough reflex.
Antitussives should not be used for persistent or chronic cough that occurs with smoking, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, or for cough accompanied by excessive mucus or phlegm.
Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely. In some cases, dextromethorphan can be habit forming.
If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an antitussive:
AsthmaDiabetesLiver diseaseChronic bronchitisEmphysemaSlowed breathingPhenylketonuriaPregnant
Nausea or other gastrointestinal upsetSlight drowsinessLightheadednessNervousness or restlessness
Expectorants are used to clear phlegm from the lungs. Phlegm is an abnormal production of mucus. However, there is limited evidence that they work. The main non-prescription expectorant is guaifenesin.
Guaifenesin is thought to increase respiratory tract fluid, which should reduce the thickness of phlegm in the lungs and enable it to be cleared more easily.
Drink plenty of water while taking guaifenesin to help loosen phlegm in the lungs.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant.
Nausea and/or vomitingDiarrheaLightheadednessHeadachesRash
These drugs help to reduce congestion.
A common decongestant that is available over the counter is pseudoephedrine.
Oral and nasal decongestants treat cold symptoms by narrowing the blood vessels in the body, including the nasal passages. Oral decongestants are taken by mouth. Nasal decongestants are applied directly to the nose.
Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely.
If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant:
DiabetesEnlarged prostateGlaucomaHeart disease or a blood vessel diseaseHigh blood pressureOveractive thyroidPregnancy
NervousnessExcitabilityRestlessnessRacing heartTremulousnessLightheadednessWeaknessTrouble sleeping
Nasal decongestants may result in addiction if used more than 3-4 days.
To avoid sleeping difficulties, take the last dose of decongestant several hours before bedtime.
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.