Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can help with many different symptoms. However, you likely won’t experience all possible symptoms of the cold during every cold you have. The drug that you choose will depend on your specific symptoms.
Nasal decongestants help unclog a congested nose. They work by narrowing the blood vessels in the lining of your nose so that the swollen tissue shrinks and decreases mucous production. Air can then pass through more easily.
These drugs can also help dry up postnasal drip.
Nasal decongestants are available as pills, nasal sprays, and liquid drops. Generally, they aren’t recommended for children who are 3 years or younger.
Active ingredients used in OTC nasal decongestants include:
- oxymetazoline nasal (Afrin, Dristan 12-Hour Nasal Spray)
- phenylephrine nasal (Neo-Synephrine)
- phenylephrine oral (Sudafed PE, Triaminic Multi-Symptom Fever and Cold)
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
Coughing actually protects the body by expelling unwanted mucus, microbes, and air. However, the urge to cough is a reflex and can sometimes be triggered unnecessarily.
Cough suppressants can help if a cough is interfering with your daily life or sleep. This is why some doctors recommend you take cough suppressants mostly at bedtime.
These drugs work by blocking the nerve impulse that causes your cough reflex. They can help provide short-term relief from coughing.
The most common OTC cough suppressant is dextromethorphan. It’s the active ingredient in medicines such as:
- Triaminic Cold and Cough
- Robitussin Cough and Chest Congestion DM
- Vicks 44 Cough & Cold
Expectorants help thin and loosen mucus so you can cough it up more easily. This can help your body rid itself of excessive mucus more quickly.
The active ingredient in OTC cough expectorants is guaifenesin. It’s found in Mucinex and Robitussin Cough and Chest Congestion DM.
Antihistamines block the release of histamine, which is a natural substance our bodies release when we’re exposed to allergens. Antihistamines may provide some relief of symptoms related to the release of histamine in your body. These can include:
Active ingredients in OTC antihistamines include:
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- chlorpheniramine (Sudafed Plus)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- doxylamine, which is one of the three active ingredients in Nyquil
The above are considered first generation antihistamines, which may cause drowsiness. Because of this, these antihistamines are often found only in nighttime or PM forms of cold drugs.
Second-generation OTC antihistamines, which don’t cause drowsiness, include:
Some healthcare providers advise against relying on these drugs to treat colds. Antihistamines, while treating the symptoms, don’t remove the virus that causes a cold.
Pain relievers help reduce the different types of pain brought on by the common cold, such as:
The common active ingredients in pain relievers include:
When in doubt about the safety of a cold drug for your child, always talk to your child’s doctor or pharmacist.
Children who are younger than age 7 should never give themselves nasal decongestant sprays. Saline nasal drops are a child-safe alternative that can help ease congestion. Ask their doctor for guidance.
Also, never give aspirin to children. Aspirin has been linked to a rare but life-threatening illness called Reye’s syndrome in children. Try ibuprofen or acetaminophen instead. These pain relievers are safe for children, but need special dosing based on your child’s age and weight.
Always use cold drugs according to the product recommendations or your healthcare provider’s advice. This helps you use them safely.
However, certain cold drugs deserve special consideration:
If you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor before using nasal decongestants. These drugs can increase your blood pressure.
Don’t use decongestant nasal sprays or drops for more than three days. These drugs become less effective after this period. Using them longer may cause chronic inflammation of your mucus membranes as a rebound effect.
Acetaminophen can lead to liver damage if you take too much, too often over an extended period.
Acetaminophen is a standalone drug (such as in Tylenol), but it’s also an ingredient in many OTC drugs. It’s important to read the ingredients of your OTC drugs before taking them together to make sure you don’t take more acetaminophen than is safe.
Although the daily recommended maximum may vary across providers, it should be in the range of 3,000 and 4,000 milligrams (mg).
Is it safe to combine different cold medicines to address all of my symptoms?
Yes, it can be safe to combine different cold medicines to address different symptoms. However, many cold products contain multiple ingredients, so it’s easier to use too much of a single ingredient when you combine these drugs. Talk with your pharmacist or doctor about specific products that are safe to combine to address your symptoms.Healthline's Medical TeamAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.