SOURCE: CHPA Educational Foundation, www.KnowYourOTCs.org

When you have a common cold or the flu, you may experience several symptoms at the same time — nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, fever, headache, body aches, sore throat, cough, and chest congestion. So how do you pick an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine to treat your symptoms? It’s important to only use medicines that treat the symptoms you have.

Multi-symptom cold medicines, also known as cough and cold combination products, are used to treat these symptoms. It is important to remember that multi-symptom cold medicines contain more than one active ingredient to treat more than one symptom.

Allergies are a separate health condition but have some similar symptoms to colds. Unsure if your symptoms point to a cold or allergies? Decode your symptoms with tips from Val Jones, M.D.

Cold and Flu Treatments

Multi-symptom cold medicines, like all OTC medicines, contain certain active ingredients that make them work in the human body. Each active ingredient treats a different symptom caused by the common cold. A multi-symptom cold medicine’s active ingredients, including how much of a substance is in each dose, are listed first on the Drug Facts label.

Multi-symptom cold medicines are available in many forms, including liquids, pills, soft chewables, dissolvable strips, and dissolvable powders. These medicines are taken by mouth and absorbed through the bloodstream.

Common symptoms and treatments associated with colds or the flu include:

Chest Congestion

Some multi-symptom cold medicines contain active ingredients that loosen or thin out mucus in the chest so that it is easier to clear when you cough.

  • The expectorant active ingredient in multi-symptom cold medicine is guaifenesin.

Cough

Some multi-symptom cold medicines contain active ingredients that work by temporarily reducing the cough reflex, which makes you cough less.

  • The cough suppressant active ingredient in multi-symptom cold medicine is dextromethorphan.

Pain and Fever

Some multi-symptom cold medicines may contain an active ingredient for pain (pain reliever) or fever (fever reducer). There are two basic types of pain relievers and fever reducers: 1) products containing acetaminophen, and 2) a group of products known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Pain reliever and fever reducer active ingredients in multi-symptom cold medicines include:

Runny Nose and Sneezing

Some multi-symptom cold medicines contain antihistamine active ingredients to help relieve runny nose and sneezing. These may be the same active ingredients as the ones used in allergy medicines.

Antihistamine active ingredients in multi-symptom cold medicines include:

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