With the summer winding down and fall moving in, colder weather will arrive soon — along with cold and flu season. Millions of Americans get the common cold each year, often more than once. To counter coughs and runny noses, many will turn to over-the-counter (OTC) medications available for relief without a prescription.
While OTC medicines do not cure or shorten the common cold or flu, they can ease some symptoms. Finding a product that fits your needs, however, may not be so straightforward. A recent study evaluated brand-name OTC medications marketed as cold, allergy, sinus, and nasal remedies. It found that 14 common brand names, such as Mucinex, Tylenol, Robitussin, Benadryl, and Theraflu, accounted for 211 unique products, yet all of these products contained only eight active ingredients, alone or in combination.
Half of those ingredients turned up in more than 100 different products, very often combined with up to three other active ingredients. In total, 688 combination products were found. Many appear under the same brand name, and all aim to remedy colds, allergies, or sinus and nasal ailments. No wonder a trip to a pharmacy aisle can be confusing (and the study did not even include store-branded and generic products).
So, how to choose from a myriad of similar products? First, understand that many products contain more active ingredients than you need. And yes, those extra active ingredients have side effects and may interact with other medicines you take. The simplest advice is to check the list of active ingredients on the package, and pick a product that targets your particular symptoms.
Despite glamourous claims and an ever-growing arsenal of products, over-the-counter cough, cold, and flu medications provide only minor relief for some symptoms, which will go away on their own without any treatment.
These precautions are especially important if you have underlying medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or heart problems.
The best treatment for common colds is plenty of rest and liquids. Prevention is better still. So wash your hands and stay away from sick people, if possible. And get a flu shot — it won’t prevent a cold, but it’s the best way to prevent flu, and you don’t want to be worrying about flu this year.
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