Dazed and sniffling in the cold-and-flu aisle: tips for buying OTC medicines

Woman sneezing in a pharmacy

You’re tired, your nose is running and you’ve got a hacking cough. You make your way to the pharmacy’s cold-and-flu aisle. The colorful packages all promise relief. How do you know which to choose?

Here are some tips and advice for adults. You should always consult your child’s pediatrician before choosing a cold or flu remedy.

Only treat your symptoms

Do you have a fever? Are you stuffed up? Are you coughing day and night? Focus on your symptoms, and treat them. All-in-one over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are tempting, but you shouldn’t take what you don’t need. Overmedicating won’t make symptoms go away faster, and it may make you drowsy or have other side effects.

Read labels!

Look at medicine labels to find the specific active ingredients that treat your symptoms. It may be cheaper to buy separate products to treat specific symptoms rather than one product to treat them all.

Here’s a guide to the most common cold-and-flu OTC medicines, courtesy of KnowYourOTCs.org:

Symptom Active ingredient Sample brand names containing the active ingredient
Chest congestion/congested cough Guaifenesin (cough expectorant) Mucinex®, Robitussin®
Dry cough Dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) Delsym®, Dimetapp®, Mucinex®, Robitussin®, Vicks®
Menthol (cough suppressant) Buckley’s®, Fisherman’s Friend®, Sucrets®, Vicks®
Pain and fever Acetaminophen (pain reliever and fever reducer) Tylenol®, FeverAll®, Theraflu®, Vicks®
Aspirin (NSAID pain reliever and fever reducer) Bayer Aspirin®, Bufferin®, Excedrin®, Goody’s
Ibuprofen (NSAID pain reliever and fever reducer) Advil®,  Motrin®
Naproxen sodium (NSAID pain reliever and fever reducer) Aleve®
Runny nose or sneezing Chlorpheniramine (antihistamine) Advil®, Chlor-Trimeton®, Dimetapp®, Tylenol®
Diphenhydramine (antihistamine) Benadryl®, Dimetapp®
Doxylamine (antihistamine) Coricidin®, Vicks®
Pheniramine (antihistamine) Theraflu®

What’s in a name? Advertising, mainly.

There are a handful of ingredients that all cold-and-flu medicines use. Generics have those ingredients, too. Check out the active ingredients in store brands to see how they stack up to their brand-name (and more expensive) counterparts.

Check labels and ask your pharmacist for dosing instructions.

Carefully follow instructions on the “Drug Facts” label for how much to take and how often. Never take more than the maximum dosage allowed in a day. Use the dosing syringe or cup that comes with the medicine. Different devices, like a household spoon, could hold the wrong amount of medicine.

Ask your pharmacist if you need help to figure out how much to take of each medicine. Many medicines used to treat different symptoms have the same active ingredient. Check the active ingredients in all medications.

Be safe: check labels for side effects.

Some OTC medications should not be used with some conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension or high blood pressure. There may also be conflicts with other medications that you take. Always ask your pharmacist or doctor for possible drug interactions or complications before starting a new medicine.

Purge your medicine cabinet.

Check the expiration dates on any OTC medicines in your home. If you bought it last year, chances are it needs to go!

Remember that your pharmacist is there for any questions or concerns. He or she can usually help you find the best match for your cold and flu symptoms. Here’s to your health!

Source: “Cough, Cold and Flu,” https://www.knowyourotcs.org/symptom/cough-cold-and-flu/, accessed Jan. 24, 2019.

About Jamie Reuter, PharmD, MBA, BCPS

Jamie Reuter, PharmD, MBA, BCPS, is vice president, enterprise pharmacy solutions. He is responsible for pharmacy services for members of EmblemHealth and ConnectiCare health plans. His experience spans practice in retail pharmacy, hospital, and critical care settings as well as teaching at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Jamie received his Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Toledo and a Master’s in Business Administration from the Carey School of Business at The Johns Hopkins University.