Understanding Common Cold Treatments

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It happens to everyone eventually. It may start with a runny nose, a tickle in the throat, a few sneezes, or maybe a couple of coughs here or there. If you are lucky it never progresses beyond a slight annoyance, but often those mild early warning signs are followed by progressively more uncomfortable symptoms and sooner or later there's no longer any use in denying it: you've got a cold.

No one likes being sick, but the common cold can often be particularly frustrating since there is very little you can do to aside from allowing it to run its course while you suffer. The typical over-the-counter cold remedies don't attempt to help fight off the virus that's ultimately making you sick, but rather focus on treating the symptoms so that you can be more comfortable while you wait it out. In fact, most cold medicine is similar or identical to the medication that you would take to relieve the symptoms of hay fever.

In general, most cold medications are either decongestants, cough suppressants, or expectorants. Some cold medications also contain pain relievers to deal with aches and pains or fever. Many medications which are advertised as general purpose cold & flu treatments will contain some combination of the above.

How do I Know What my Cold Medication is Really Doing?

Looking at the active ingredients of a cold medication is a great way to understand what symptoms it targets. This is useful so that you can understand what you are buying and avoid overmedicating by treating symptoms that you do not currently have. Most cold & flu medications will contain a decongestant, a pain reliever/fever reducer, and possibly a cough suppressant.

The two most common decongestants found in over-the-counter medications are phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Decongestants work by reducing the inflammation in your nose, which has the effect or relieving the feeling of congestion and ultimately allowing built-up mucus to flow out more easily. Decongestants with no additional ingredients are commonly available, so if nasal congestion is the cold symptom that you find most disturbing it may be a good idea to skip the multi-symptom cold & flu medications and purchase just a decongestant.

While decongestants target nasal congestion, cough suppressants work by suppressing your urge to cough. Dextromethorphan is the most common cough suppressant and it is sometimes combined with guaifenesin, a cough expectorant. While cough suppressants only work to help relieve symptoms, cough expectorants can help to clear up a cough more quickly by thinning mucus and allowing it to be cleared from your airways.

Finally, many over-the-counter cold & flu remedies will also include a pain reliever and fever reducer. These ingredients in over-the-counter medication may be acetaminophen (commonly known by the brand name Tylenol) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). There are a variety of NSAIDs and they are commonly available under different brand names, such as the ibuprofen brands of Motrin of Advil.

When Should You Seek Medical Care?

Colds rarely require professional medical attention, but there are a few situations where it is worth consulting with a doctor just to be on the safe side:

  • A cough that lasts more than a few weeks
  • Long-term congestion and headaches
  • A fever that does not improve after several days
  • Any difficulty breathing

If you do feel that your cold may be something more serious, look into premier cold treatments at your local urgent care.