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The Simple Guide to Cold Medications

By Krista Elliott

We've all been there: Standing in the "cold and flu" aisle at 10 p.m., staring at the boxes and bottles with exhausted bewilderment. The pharmacist has long since gone home, and all you want is something, anything, to help you get rid of this cold. 

Cold medications have a wide variety of options, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. On one hand, you can get something that will address your precise symptoms. On the other, it can be confusing to know what ingredients treat which symptoms, and what will work best for you. 

So, let's take a look at some common medicine choices.

Decongestant vs. Antihistamine

If your nose is all stuffed up, a decongestant (like oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, or pseudoephedrine) works by shrinking swollen blood vessels and clearing up your airway. It's basically an internal version of a Breathe-Right strip. Antihistamines, on the other hand, help to keep your nose and eyes from running or watering. So if you can breathe, but your nose is a tap, an old-school antihistamine like brompherinamine or chlorpheniramine is the way to go. (Newer antihistamines found in most allergy medications don't do much for a cold.) And if you have one nostril blocked and the other is running? You can look for a medicine that combines both. 

Expectorant vs. Suppressant

How's your cough? If it's dry, tickly, and hacking, there's no point in keeping it going, right? In this case, a suppressant will quiet your coughing reflex, allowing your body to ignore the tickle and get some rest. The most common suppressant is dextromethorphan. 

On the other hand, if your lungs are full of gunk and you're desperate to cough it out, an expectorant like guaifenesin can thin out the mucus and make it easier to cough up. 

More? Or Less? 

Some cold medicines just address one or two symptoms, while others cover a wide range. Experts agree that minimal is best, and that you should take the minimum amount of medicine needed to cover only the symptoms that you have. So if you have a cough and stuffiness, find a medicine that covers both, instead of doubling up. But try to avoid medicine that treats symptoms that you don't actually have. This may require different medicines to treat different phases of your cold, but it'll reduce the odds of side effects. 

One final note: cold medicines are not to be used for young children. Instead, saline drops or spray, spoonfuls of honey, a cool-mist vaporizer, and plenty of liquids will treat the majority of your child's symptoms. 

And chicken soup works for pretty much every age. 

To learn more about your health and wellness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic.

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