How to Choose Medicines Safely During Cough and Cold Season


Bykov recommends checking the list of active ingredients on the package and to pick a product that targets your particular symptoms.

A recent article on the Harvard Health Blog that evaluated brand-name OTC medications for cold, allergy, sinus, and nasal remedies found that 14 of the most common brand names contained only 8 active ingredients, alone or in combination.

Half of those ingredients turned up in more than 100 different products, which frequently combined up to 3 other active ingredients. The analysis found 688 combination products, many of which appeared under the same brand name to remedy colds, allergies, or sinus and nasal ailments, according to author Katsiaryna Bykov, PharmD, ScD.

Bykov recommends checking the list of active ingredients on the package and to pick a product that targets your particular symptoms.

For sore throats, headaches, and muscle aches, pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, can help. Runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing may be relieved by an antihistamine, such as chlorpheniramine, which is recommended to consume during the day due to its drowsiness.

Although nasal congestion responds to decongestants, such as phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine, the effects are temporary. These medications may also cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, in addition to insomnia and agitation. These should not be used for more than 3 days, as longer use can lead to rebound congestion, according to Bykov.

Guaifenesin is an ingredient in medicine for the common cough, which can help clear mucus, in addition to dextromethorphan, which is a cough suppressant. Although guaifenesin is known to be relatively safe, excessive use of dextromethorphan may increase blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeat, and incite dizziness, according to Bykov.

She added that consumers should be aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any OTC cough and cold preparations for children under 6 years of age. Further, if taking more than 1 product, make sure not to double up on ingredients.

In addition, talking to a pharmacist or physician is the best option to determine which products are safest to take, as many products with multiple ingredients have potentially serious adverse effects. Bykov said that bringing products or packages to care provider visits may also help.

Bykov recommends plenty of rest and liquids for the treatment of the common cold, while practicing safe hygiene such as washing your hands and staying away from sick people, if possible.


Cough and cold season is arriving: Choose medicines safely. Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. Published September 22, 2020. Accessed October 7, 2020.

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