Cold, Flu, Allergy Treatments

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Find out which OTC medication will relieve your cold, flu, or allergy symptoms.

Making Sense of OTC Cold and Cough Medications

Unsure about the hundreds of cold and flu preparations on the drugstore shelves? You're not alone. Deciding among the OTC (over-the-counter) remedies for cold, flu, or allergy symptoms can be intimidating, and a basic understanding of the types of drugs included in these medications can help you make an informed choice.

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Facts about cold, flu, and allergy treatments

  • The three classes of pain and fever treatments available over the counter (OTC) are aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which are the cause of colds and the flu. However, bacterial infections that can follow viral infections, for example, infections of the ears and sinuses, may be treated with antibiotics.
  • Nasal decongestants (for example, pseudoephedrine, oxymetazoline, etc.) narrow the blood vessels in the nose, thereby preventing fluid from leaking and the lining from swelling. These can be used for short-term relief in older children and adults.
  • Analgesic/antipyretic medications are often sold in combination with other ingredient(s) to treat cold/flu/allergy symptoms.
  • Antihistamines are commonly used to block the histamine effect that causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction, including swelling, congestion, irritation, and itching. "First generation" antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) have been in use longer, are less expensive, and are more sedating (prone to cause drowsiness) than the newer, "second generation" antihistamines (fexofenadine [Allegra], loratadine [Claritin], etc.), which have minimal sedative effects.
  • OTC antihistamines frequently are combined with a nasal decongestant and sometimes also with a cough suppressant or an analgesic. Generally, antihistamine preparations are not effective for cold symptoms.
  • Codeine and hydrocodone are narcotic oral cough suppressants that require a doctor's prescription. Dextromethorphan (Tussin P) is an oral cough suppressant that is available OTC.
  • Guaifenesin (Robitussin, Mucinex) is an oral expectorant that is used to increase the leaking of fluid out of the lung tissue and into the airways.
  • There is no conclusive evidence that mega-doses of vitamin C prevent colds or decrease the severity and duration of cold symptoms.
  • Aspirin-containing medicines should never be used for children and teenagers with influenza, chickenpox, or other viral illnesses.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/28/2017

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