What Do I Take for My Cold, Michelle?

July 2021

When I finished pharmacy school, I was asked constantly what medications to take to cure their cold. In response, I made them a Google Doc page titled “What Do I Take for My Cold, Michelle?” more as a joke but it was full of information I would recommend to them. That being said, the cold aisle in the pharmacies are intense – there are so many products to choose from all advertising they can help you. Of all those items, there are only a handful of products you actually need for symptom management. Especially if you are away from home traveling and get sick, you want to be able to know what you are looking for. No one wants to fly with a stuff nose – been there, its horrible. I am sharing this post with you for managing your cold and the symptoms that company a pesky virus. (Reminder: cold = virus = treatment is symptom management … not antibiotics! Antibiotics are to treat a bacteria, not a virus.)

What Do I Take for My Cold, Michelle?

My answer is always nothing!

Rest, sleep, and water are the best tools for your body to recover and fight the virus. I am a pharmacist that does not promote pill popping for anything and everything.

You cannot help it and nothing you can take will make the cold “go away” – it needs to run its course and you are only masking symptoms that are helping your body fight and get rid of the virus.

But if you need to take something for comfort… here is a chart based on the symptom you are trying to alleviate.

First rule of thumb: Never use combination products – they are a waste of money – if they work for you, thank the placebo effect. Most of them have medications that do not have a mechanism for symptom relief. Purchase single medication products only.

I am also putting brand and generic names in the chart so you can find what you are looking for – but I always purchase generic. If you have pre-existing health conditions, make sure to consult your doctor for the medications that work best for you!

SymptomProductWhy
Stuffy
Nose
WaterPeople on average do not drink enough water and
it is the foundation for all bodily functions.
All the mucus coming out of your body is fluids
that need to be replaced and water helps support
your body fighting the virus.
Oral antihistamine
examples – Claritin (loratadine)
or Zyrtec (cetirizine)
Oral antihistamines help dry up the mucus
(take once a day in the morning)
Saline Nasal SpraySaline spray is to keep your nose from drying up and bleeding
(it’s just salt water)
If super stuffy (like your nostril airways are closed):
Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine)
The right Sudafed needs to be purchased behind the counter – do NOT get OTC version (Sudafed PE) – it does not work.
Take as directed by the package and avoid taking at night (can keep you awake).
Also check the box as people with heart issues or high blood pressure should avoid.
If still super stuffy:
Afrin (Oxymetazoline) Nasal Spray
Afrin is the last line because you can only use it for 3 days then you are at risk of even worse nasal congestion so reserve it for last since you only get 3 days of it once you commit. 
Stuffy
head
WaterPeople on average do not drink enough water
and it is the foundation for all bodily functions.
Water helps support your body fighting the virus.
Sudafed
(Pseudoephedrine)
Because your nose is backed up it is causing built up pressure in your head.
You need to relieve the pressure by taking Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine).
The right Sudafed needs to be purchased behind the counter – do NOT get OTC version (Sudafed PE) – it does not work.
Take as directed by the package and avoid taking at night (can keep you awake).
Also check the box as people with heart issues or high blood pressure should avoid.
Stuffy
throat
WaterWater is the #1 best expectorant!
Drink up.
Mucinex (Guaifenesin)
(NOT DM formulation)
Mucinex (Guaifenesin) gets mucus up and out of throat and promotes coughing.
In order to get eh mucus out, you have to cough it up.
Do not buy a version with DM (DM = cough suppressant) because you want to cough it up.
Once again, do NOT take cough suppressant with it (DM).
Take as directed on the box and avoid taking at night (will have you coughing all night).
Stuffy
chest
meh…May be more serious if stuck in chest and
cannot get out and could be bacterial – go see
a doctor.
Cough
WaterSolves all things.
Throat lozengeSoothes the throat – check the box for the max number of lozenges you are permitted in a day.
Delsyum (Dextromethorphan /
DM)
At night only if you cannot sleep due to coughing.
Cough is meant to get mucus/irritants out.
No no no drinking alcohol  with Delsym (Dextromethorphan) or any product with “DM” in it.
Suppress cough at night only. Treat with water and throat lozenge during the day.
Sore
Throat
WaterSee a trend? Drink water!
However, if sore throat is severe or lasts a long
time, go see a doctor – could be strep =
bacteria = antibiotics.
Throat lozengeSoothes the throat – check the box for the max number of lozenges you are permitted in a day.
Good for during the day and as needed relief.
Throat spray (phenol)Soothes the throat – check box for how to use properly.
Good for at night relief since you can’t suck on a lozenge at night without the risk of choking.
Fever
Motrin (ibuprofen)
Tylenol (acetaminophen)
Both effective for fever reduction.
Drinking alcohol? Take Motrin.
Sick? You should not be drinking
alcohol… Don’t drink.
Feeling achy? Motrin is better.
If a fever is very high or lasts a long time,
may be more than a cold – go see a doctor.
BONUS!

Seasonal Allergies
Oral antihistamine:
Claritin (loratadine)
or Zyrtec (cetirizine)
Nasal steroid:
Flonase
(fluticasone)
Other:
Singulair
(montelukast)
You cannot treat based on symptoms – you must take them continuously before and during allergy season.
The medications are meant to be taken before allergy exposure to block the receptors before the allergies get to them.
Once the allergen makes contact with receptor = game over.
Consult your doctor for the best regimen for you.

Personally, my medicine cabinet contains ibuprofen, acetaminophen, Delsym, an oral antihistamine, saline nasal spray and some throat lozenges. Lots and lots of water! Occasionally I will purchase Sudafed but I mostly end up throwing it away because it is expired by the time I want to use it next so I typically do not keep on hand. Speaking of… do not forget to check the expiration dates of those products, especially in between cold seasons. Do not take expired medications! For best storage, do not store in bathroom or kitchen where temperature and humidity fluctuates – store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

I hope you found this helpful! If you would like to see more content like this, let me know in the comments!

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