Since there is no cure, the best way for children over age 14 and adults to help ease cold symptoms is with careful use of over-the-counter medications and possibly by modifying some behaviors. There are several types of over-the-counter medications that don’t prevent colds or shorten them but that may help manage symptoms: nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, expectorants, and antihistamines. If these do not provide relief, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider for an evaluation in case there is another health condition, such as the flu, at play. Over the counter medications also have side effects that you will want to weigh. Used for more than a few days, they also can worsen rather than help cold symptoms.
Important note for children: Because these medicines can have serious side effects and because accidental overdoses can be fatal, experts recommend avoiding giving any cough and cold drugs to children under the age of six and exercising caution for children between the ages of six and 14. If your child has a cold, talk to your pediatrician about the safest and best treatment options.
Not suitable for children. Nasal decongestants help unclog a congested nose. They work by narrowing blood vessels in the lining of the nose. The swollen tissue shrinks and then air can pass through more easily. They can help dry up post-nasal drip. Nasal decongestants are available as pills, nasal sprays, and liquid drops.
Nasal decongestants can cause temporary nervousness, dizziness, heart palpitations, and sleeping problems. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your physician before taking, as a decongestant can raise blood pressure. Adults shouldn't use decongestant nasal sprays or drops for more than three days. Prolonged use can cause chronic inflammation of mucus membranes. Known as a rebound effect, this occurs because the medication becomes less and less effective after using for four consecutive days and might tempt someone to use more and more of it. People can become dependent on this kind of medication. While children should never use decongestant nasal sprays, saline nasal drops help congestion and are safe for children and even for babies. Ask your doctor for guidance. Over the counter nasal decongestants include:
- Oxymetazoline nasal (Afrin, Dristan 12-Hour Nasal Spray, Duramist Plus)
- Phenylephrine nasal (Neo-Synephrine 12-Hour Spray, Nostril, Rhinall)
- Phenylephrine oral (Sudafed PE, Triaminic)
- Pseudoephedrine (Contac Non-Drowsy, Sudafed)
Not for children under age fourteen. Coughs often go away without the aid of medication, and the American College of Chest Physicians discourages using over-the-counter cough suppressants for a cough caused by an underlying cold. However, if a cough is interfering with your daily life or with sleep, cough suppressants can help. They work by blocking the cough reflex in the brain. They can give some helpful short-term relief for bronchitis symptoms. They are less effective on coughs caused by colds. The most common over-the-counter cough suppressant is called:
- Dextromethorphan (Triaminic Cold and Cough, Robitussin Cough, Vicks 44 Cough and Cold)
Coughing protects the body by expelling unwanted mucus, microbes and air and without it there would be more sickness and infections. Coughs have many causes from gastroesophageal reflux disease to asthma, but among non-smokers, the most common cause of coughing by far is the common cold. Cough expectorants help thin and loosen mucus so you can cough it up more easily. This can make your cold symptoms dissipate sooner. The most common over-the-counter cough expectorant is called:
- Guaifenesin (Mucinex and Robitussin Chest Congestion)
Antihistamines may provide some relief from cold symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, and nasal discharge. Histamine, one of the natural inflammatory mediators in our bodies, is responsible for the sneezing, nasal congestion, and runny nose in people with allergies but is not involved in these symptoms in colds. Antihistamines, as the name implies, work by blocking histamine, by decreasing mucus secretion, and by widening airways. Some experts don’t believe that the benefits of these products outweigh the side effects. Over-the-counter antihistamines include:
- Brompheniramine and Phenylephrine (Dimetane)
- Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- Chlorpheniramine/Pseudoephedrine (Allerest, Sudafed Plus)
- Clemastine (Tavist)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- Doxylamine (Aldex AN)
- Loratadine (Claritin)
Analgesics, or pain relievers, help reduce fever, muscle aches, headaches, sore throat, and earaches brought on by the common cold. Take only the amount recommended on the label. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially if taken frequently or in doses beyond what is recommended. The danger is that multiple medications may contain the same ingredient, like acetaminophen for example, leading to a higher total consumption of the drug than is safe. Children should never be given aspirin, which has been linked to a rare but life-threatening illness called Reye’s syndrome. Approach the dosing instructions for acetaminophen for children with care to avoid errors. The infant drop formula is far more concentrated than the syrup given to older children. Pain relievers include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Aspirin (Bayer)
- Naproxen sodium (Aleve)