My husband has a cold (I have been fortunate not to have one) and he decided he needed some over the counter (OTC) “cold medicine”, despite the fact that I told him they don’t work! At any rate, I stayed in the car while he went in to buy “some things.” It wasn’t too long before he was back empty handed…..and asking for some help in deciding what to buy! It seems that he was overwhelmed and confused by all of the different choices….so I thought this was a good time to review all of the “ingredients” in OTC cough/cold medications. But remember, OTC cough and cold products are not recommended AT ALL for children under the age of 4.
Most of the products that are advertised and sold for treating coughs and colds contain either a decongestant, antihistamine, expectorant, or anti-jussive (for cough). But many of the OTC medicines contain some combination of these ingredients and there are many similar products with different brand names. Just gazing at the row of choices is enough to confuse anyone….even a doctor.
The most common decongestant used in OTC products is phenylephrine but its effectiveness in reducing nasal congestion from the common cold has been inconclusive. Another decongestant, pseudo ephedrine (Sudafed) is available, but has become restricted (it is a precursor in the manufacturing of methapmphetamine) and is now found behind the counter. Both of these drugs are often found in combination with other ingredients.
Antihistamines are also in many products. First generation antihistamines include diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorpheniramine and are known for their tendency to be sedating. Second generation non sedating antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra) and cetirizine (Zyrtec) are also found in some preparations ( typically with wording “daytime”) and are not sedating. In either case antihistamines do not seem to help the common cold. Antihistamines do help allergies which are histamine mediated while a cold is not.
Anti-tussives or cough suppressants are commonly found in OTC cold medications, as cough is one of the most irritating aspects of a cold. Dextromethorphan acts on the cough center in the brain to suppress coughing. It is the main ingredient in many OTC cough syrups but may also be found in many cough and cold combos in either liquid or pill form.
Guaifenesin is an expectorant and is found in many products, but again has not been found to have a measurable effect on mucous production from a cold.
Lastly, there are many products that are advertised to help with the “aches and pains” of a cold including acetaminophen and ibuprofen which may be found in combination with some of the above ingredients.
So…you have to read labels and make sure you “know” what you are getting. Too many people do not realize that they may be taking the same medicine but with different brand names, and this could cause an overdose.
But the take home message is that “we” spend billions of dollars on these OTC products with continued studies showing minimal if any effect on the common cold when compared to placebo!
I would spend my money on some Vicks, honey, and chicken soup and forgo the confusion on the cough and cold aisle.