Colds are caused by viruses; in fact, there are over 100 different viruses that cause colds. There are no medicines to cure colds. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. However, there are a variety or products that may somewhat reduce cold symptoms. Many of these can be bought without a prescription. The main types of over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines are reviewed here:

These medicines may help reduce your symptoms. However, see your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A cold lasting more than 10 days
  • A cough that has not improved after seven days
  • Sore throat that has not improved after two days
  • Hoarseness that persists for more than two weeks
  • High fever (temperature above 102ºF [39ºC]) , skin rash, or continuing headache
  • Earache or drainage from your ear
  • Severe pain in your face or forehead
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing

People with moderate to severe pulmonary or cardiac disease, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, angina, and hypertension, should consult with their doctor early in the course of their symptoms and before taking any medication. Children should also be seen earlier in the course of their illness, especially if they are very young.

Analgesics

Analgesics relieve aches and pains and reduce fever.

Brand Names

Generic NameBrand Names
acetaminophenAceta, Actamin, Aminofen, Apacet, Aspirin Free Anacin, Aspirin-Free Excedrin, Banesin, Bayer Select, Dapa, Datril, Feverall, Genapap, Genebs, Liquiprin, Neopap, Oraphen-PD, Panadol, Phenaphen, Redutemp, Snaplets-FR, St. Joseph Aspirin-Free Fever Reducer, Suppap, Tapanol, Tempra, Tylenol, Valorin
aspirinAcuprin, Anacin, Ascriptin, Aspergum, Aspirin Regimen Bayer, Aspir-Low, Aspirtab, Bayer, Bufferin, Buffex, Buffinol, Cope, Easprin, Ecotrin, Empirin, Gensan, Halfprin, Healthprin, Magnaprin, Sloprin, St. Joseph Adult chewable Aspirin, ZORprin
ibuprofenAdvil, Dolgesic, Excedrin IB, Genpril, Haltran, Ibifon, Ibren, Ibu, Ibuprin, Ibuprohm, Medipren, Midol IB, Motrin, Nuprin, Pamprin-IB, Q-Profen, Rufen, Trendar
ketoprofenActron, Orudis, Oruvail
naproxenAleve, Anaprox, Naprelan, Naprosyn

How These Medications Work

Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS (ibuprofen, ketoprofen, naproxen) inhibit the formation of certain prostaglandins. These are substances in the body that are involved in various processes including pain and body temperature. Acetaminophen probably works in a similar way, but it lacks the anti-inflammatory effects of NSAIDS.

Proper Use

Take analgesics with food and a glass of water to decrease the chance of stomach upset. Delayed-release and extended-release tablets have a special coating that makes them easier on the stomach.

Precautions While Using This Medication

Accidental Overdosage—Many OTC medications as well as prescription painkillers contain acetaminophen (Tylenol). Although acetaminophen is quite safe when used as directed, when taken in excess it can cause liver damage. Make sure to read the labels and do not “double up” on acetaminophen.

Children and Teens—Aspirin is not recommended for children and teens with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving aspirin to a child or teen. Children can be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Pregnancy—Acetaminophen is usually considered the safest pain and fever reducer to use during pregnancy. Do not take aspirin during pregnancy unless your doctor has ordered it.

Alcohol—If you will be taking more than an occasional one or two doses of acetaminophen, do not drink alcohol. Doing so may increase the chance of liver damage, especially if you drink large amounts of alcoholic beverages regularly, if you take more acetaminophen than is recommended on the package label, or if you take it regularly for a long time.

Certain Conditions—If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an analgesic:

Possible Side Effects

Possible side effects of analgesics include:

  • Abdominal or stomach cramps, pain, or discomfort
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness, drowsiness, or lightheadedness
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Easy bruising
  • Rash

Antitussives

Antitussive medications are used to control coughing, however, it is not clear whether they are really effective.

Brand Names

The main nonprescription antitussive is dextromethorphan. Products made from this drug include:

  • Benylin
  • Cough-X
  • Creo-Terpin
  • Delsym
  • Diabe-TUSS DM
  • Hold DM
  • Pertussin
  • Robitussin
  • Sucrets Cough Suppressant
  • Trocal
  • Vicks Cough Relief

How This Medication Works

Dextromethorphan is thought to relieve cough by acting directly on the cough center in the brain to depress the cough reflex.

Proper Use

Antitussives should not be used for persistent or chronic cough that occurs with smoking, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, or for cough accompanied by excessive mucus or phlegm.

Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely. In some cases, dextromethorphan can be habit forming.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an antitussive:

  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Slowed breathing
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Pregnant

Possible Side Effects

  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal upset
  • Slight drowsiness
  • Dizziness

Expectorants

Expectorants are used to clear phlegm from the lungs. Phlegm is an abnormal production of mucus. However, it is not clear whether they actually work.

Brand Names

The main non-prescription expectorant is guaifenesin. Products made from this drug include:

  • Anti-Tuss
  • Breonesin
  • Diabetic Tussin EX
  • Fenesin
  • Gee-Gee
  • Genatuss
  • GG-CEN
  • Glycotuss
  • Glytuss
  • Guiatuss
  • Halotussin
  • Humibid
  • Hytuss
  • Naldecon Senior EX
  • Organidin NR
  • Pneumomist
  • Robitussin
  • Scot-tussin Expectorant
  • Sinumist-SR
  • Touro EX
  • Uni-tussin

How This Medication Works

Guaifenesin is though to increase respiratory tract fluid, which in turn should reduce the thickness of phlegm in the lungs and enable it to be cleared more easily.

Proper Use

Drink plenty of water while taking guaifenesin to help loosen phlegm in the lungs.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant:

  • Pregnancy

Possible Side Effects

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Rash

Oral Decongestants

These drugs help to reduce congestion.

Brand Names

A common decongestant that is available over the counter is pseudoephedrine. Products that contain this ingredient include:

  • Cenafed
  • Chlor-Trimeton Non-Drowsy Decongestant
  • Decofed
  • Dimetapp
  • Drixoral
  • Efidac/24
  • Genaphed
  • Myfedrine
  • PediaCare Infants' Oral Decongestant Drops
  • Pseudo 60's
  • Sudafed
  • Triaminic

How This Medication Works

Oral decongestants constrict blood vessels in the nasal passages leading to a decrease in both swelling and mucus production.

Proper Use

Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely. In some cases, people can become physically and/or psychologically dependent on products containing pseudoephedrine.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant:

  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart disease or a blood vessel disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Pregnancy

Possible Side Effects

  • Nervousness
  • Excitability
  • Restlessness
  • Racing heart
  • Tremulousness
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Trouble sleeping

To avoid sleeping difficulties, take the last dose of decongestant several hours before bedtime.

With every medication, there are important precautions to consider. These include allergies, interactions with other drugs and medical conditions, and safety during pregnancy, lactation, and other stages of life.