Cold and flu season can knock you off your feet. It’s hard to enjoy your family and work when you’re fighting a runny nose, cough, sore throat, and other annoying cold symptoms.

The good news is that many over-the-counter medications can relieve your symptoms. Some people go to the nearest pharmacy at the first sign of a cold. But if you’re breast-feeding, you may wonder if it’s safe to take cold medicine.

Over-the-counter cold remedies are generally safe while breast-feeding, but this doesn't mean you should take any type of medication. Since the medications you take can pass into your breast milk — usually less than 1 percent of the taken dosage — it’s important to check the active ingredients of all medicine so that you don’t expose your baby to a potentially harmful drug.

Safe Cold Medicines While Breast-Feeding

Pseudoephedrine and phenylephedrine are oral decongestants for treating nasal congestion caused by colds, allergies, and sinus infections. Both ingredients are common in over-the-counter medications and considered safe while breast-feeding. But although safe, these ingredients can affect breast-feeding.

Decongestants improve cold symptoms by constricting the blood vessels in the nose and sinuses. This helps open up your nasal passageway and improves breathing. But decongestants can also affect other parts of the body. These medications can constrict blood vessels in the breasts and reduce blood flow needed for milk production.

You should also be aware of how decongestants can affect infants. Some infants aren’t bothered by traces of the medication in their milk supply, but decongestants can cause irritability and restlessness in infants. If you don't want to risk problems with your milk flow or cause restlessness in your baby, you can skip an oral treatment and relieve congestion with a nasal spray decongestant.

Allergy symptoms sometimes accompany a cold. Fortunately, antihistamines are also safe while breast-feeding. But some allergy medications cause drowsiness.

Antihistamines with the ingredients diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine may cause marked drowsiness and sluggishness. Breast-feeding while taking these medications can make your baby sleepy. You can avoid this side effect by choosing nondrowsy antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra). However, unlike other antihistamines, these will only help symptoms caused by allergies, not the runny nose that comes with a cold virus.

Cold symptom severity varies from person to person. You may have body aches or need a pain reliever for a sore throat. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium are safe options while breast-feeding. If you prefer treating a painful sore throat without these types of medications, you can ease symptoms with lozenges or an over-the-counter sore throat gargle.

If you’re dealing with a nagging cough, cough suppressants with the ingredient dextromethorphan are also safe to take while breast-feeding.

Cold Medications Precautions While Breast-Feeding

If you take lozenges or purchase a sore throat gargle, make sure you read the ingredients on the back or side label. You should avoid medications containing povidone-iodine. This ingredient increases iodine levels in breast milk. Higher levels raise the risk of transient hypothyroidism in breast-fed babies.

You should also avoid cold medications with high alcohol content. These include some nighttime relief medications that cause drowsiness. Medications with multiple ingredients for multisymptom relief are convenient, but it’s safer to take single ingredient cold medications. This precaution limits your baby’s exposure to over-the-counter medications.

You can also limit your baby’s exposure by taking dosages around your baby’s breast-feeding schedule, if possible. For example, can you feed your baby before a dose, and then avoid breast-feeding for one or two hours immediately after each dose?

Another way to reduce your baby’s exposure is by avoiding extra strength cold medications like those that only require one or two dosages a day. These medications are convenient because you don’t have to take a pill every four hours, but they also remain in your bloodstream and milk supply longer than other types of medication.

Home and Natural Cold Remedies

There’s no cure for the common cold, but medications can be effective and help you feel better. Drugs aren’t the only option for improving your symptoms. If you’re not comfortable taking cold medicine while breast-feeding, some home and natural remedies might do the trick.

To relieve congestion naturally, make sure you drink plenty of liquids, such as:

  • warm broth
  • decaffeinated tea
  • juice
  • water with lemon or honey

You can eat chicken soup to reduce congestion and mucus buildup. The warmth from the soup can ease a sore, scratchy throat. Mixing 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons of salt in 8 ounces of warm water and gargling also soothes a sore throat, as does sucking on ice chips or sugar-free candy.

It’s also important that you get plenty of rest while fighting a cold. This can be hard, and understandably, you might not be able to stop completely. But you should slow down and limit your level of activity. If you’re well enough to exercise, reduce the intensity of your workouts. Rest can strengthen your immune system and help you recover faster.

Taking herbs and supplements such as vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc may shorten the duration of your cold, though the evidence for this is inconclusive at best. Speak with your doctor before treating a cold with alternative remedies.

When to See a Doctor

Most colds are mild and last between three and seven days. If your symptoms don’t improve within this time span or worsen, make an appointment with your doctor. Sometimes, the common cold mimics other conditions or develops into a secondary infection. More serious symptoms to watch out for include wheezing, an earache, a severe cough, and facial pain. These symptoms may indicate one or more of the following conditions:

  • ear infection
  • sinusitis
  • strep throat
  • flu
  • pneumonia
  • bronchitis

Your doctor can diagnose the problem based on your symptoms and offer an effective treatment. Tamiflu is an approved treatment for the flu virus, but you should consult your doctor to see if this drug is right for you.

The Takeaway

If you have a cold and you're taking cold medication, you may think it’s safer to stop breast-feeding until your symptoms improve. But since your baby receives antibodies from your breast milk, continuing to breast-feed can actually strengthen your baby’s immune system and lower their chances of becoming sick.

Other measures to protect your baby from sickness include:

  • wear a face mask while breast-feeding your baby
  • wash your hands before touching your baby
  • don’t share pillows or blankets with your baby
  • wash your breasts with mild soap before feedings

If you have any questions about whether a particular cold medication is safe to take while breast-feeding, speak with your doctor.