How to find the best cold medicine for your symptoms

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 4 min read

Curious about COVID-19?

It can be hard to know if you have a cold or if it could be COVID-19. This is true even if you’ve been vaccinated. To be safe, at the first sign of a cold, get tested for COVID-19. Testing is widely available at pharmacies and healthcare clinics.

For many people, the annual pilgrimage to their local pharmacy’s cold medicine aisle is a confusing and frustrating experience. How many times have you stood in that aisle asking yourself, why are there so many choices? What cold medicine is best for my symptoms? What the heck is that ingredient and do I really want to put it in my body?

We know that trying to choose the best cold medicine for yourself can be overwhelming. Yes, you want a medication that helps reduce swelling in your sinus and nasal passages. No, you don’t need a cold medicine that promises to provide maximum relief for 20 other symptoms you don’t have. With so many cold medicine options out there, it’s hard to know what you should or shouldn’t take. We’re here to help.

Get relief from cold symptoms

Let’s dive into specific cold symptoms and medications to help manage those symptoms.

Fever

At the start of a cold, it’s normal to spike a mild fever. A fever means that your body’s immune system is working and trying to fight off the virus that’s causing your cold. To treat a fever, take ibuprofen or acetaminophen and make sure to follow dosing directions.

Sore and scratchy throat

In addition to cooling a fever, ibuprofen will reduce inflammation and provide relief from a sore and scratchy throat. If your throat is sore, you may also want to try soothing throat lozenges or an antiseptic spray to help numb pain.

Sinus congestion and pain

As your sinus passages swell and produce mucus to help rid your body of the virus that’s making you sick, you may experience a lot of discomfort. To ease sinus pain and calm inflammation, take ibuprofen. Can’t tolerate ibuprofen? Acetaminophen can also be taken to reduce sinus pain and discomfort. Additionally, to keep your sinuses draining, consider taking an expectorant like Mucinex® that contains the ingredient guaifenesin.

Runny nose

Going through boxes of tissue? Give your sore nose a rest by taking an antihistamine like Claritin® or Zyrtec®. Be sure to follow dosing directions and read the package label for possible side effects.

Chest congestion

When you have a cold, your airway passages swell and ramp up mucus production. To ease chest congestion, take an expectorant that contains guaifenesin to help thin mucus – making it easier to cough up.

Cough

When you have a cold, it’s good to cough up and get rid of extra mucus and phlegm. However, a nagging cough can make it difficult to get a good night’s rest. If a cough just won’t quit and is interrupting your sleep, consider taking an over-the-counter cough suppressant that contains the ingredient dextromethorphan.

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the best cold medicine. In addition to your specific cold symptoms, it’s also important to take into account your – or your child’s – age and if you have any health conditions or concerns. For example, individuals who are under the age of 12, pregnant or who have high blood pressure need to be extra cautious when taking over-the-counter cold medications. If you fall into one of these groups, ask your care provider or start a visit at Virtuwell for guidance on what medications are safe to take.

Additionally, with all colds, there’s the risk of developing other related conditions like a sinus infection, ear infection or bronchitis. If that happens, a provider at Virtuwell can provide a diagnosis, treatment plan and – if necessary – prescription meds to get you feeling better fast.

Cold medication tips

1. Keep it simple

When it comes to selecting over-the-counter cold medications, less is more. Avoid taking medications that contain a laundry list of ingredients or that promise to cure multiple symptoms. More likely, these pills and liquid concoctions will leave you feeling groggy, dizzy and nauseous.

2. Save money with generics

Don’t shy away from less-expensive generic brands. Compare labels and pay attention to the names of ingredients, not the brand name on the front of the package. If you have questions while in the store, ask the pharmacist for help.

3. Be patient:

Over-the-counter cold and cough medications can be helpful in managing seasonal cold symptoms, but time is the only true cure. As your body works to fight off and recover from a cold, remember you’re contagious and can pass the virus to others. Take steps to reduce the spread of germs and cold viruses by washing your hands frequently and staying home when you’re not feeling well.

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