Home Health Making sense of OTC cold and flu medication

Making sense of OTC cold and flu medication

by Tania Griffin

More people are choosing to self-medicate colds and flu than ever before, but with literally hundreds of over-the-counter (OTC) remedies available inside a pharmacy, how do you know which one(s) to buy?

Marli Botha, OTC product manager at Pharma Dynamics, says there are more than 200 different colds and flu medicine brands available today, which can make choosing the right treatment onerous.

“While self-medicating can save you time and money, few consumers are familiar with the active ingredients in medicines and how they could potentially interact with one another. For example, taking a nasal decongestant when you have high blood pressure may cause an unwanted reaction. If you do you have an underlying condition and/or are on chronic medication, then it’s always best to check with the pharmacist or your doctor regarding the risk of a drug interaction – even when it comes to natural or herbal treatments.” 

She says when you’re suffering from a cough and/or runny nose, it’s important to know whether you have a cold or flu, as they often require different treatment.

“A cold usually comes on gradually, over the course of a day or two. Symptoms typically include tiredness, sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose and coughing. You may not have a fever, but when you do, it’s likely to only be slightly higher than normal. Colds usually last three to four days, but can linger for up to two weeks.

“In contrast, the flu comes on suddenly and hits hard. You will feel weak and tired, and could run a fever as high as 40°C. You’ll experience aching muscles and are likely to feel cold the one minute and hot the next. The flu is often accompanied by a pounding headache and sore throat. A fever may last three to five days, but you could feel weak and tired for two to three weeks.”

While most people will recover from a cold relatively quickly, the flu can lead to serious complications in those with suppressed immune systems, such as the elderly, children or those suffering from a chronic condition, which is why these populations should consult a doctor if symptoms persist after one week.

Botha says if you have a runny nose and sore throat, medications that include an ingredient to control coughs should be avoided.

“Consumers need to make sure they choose medication that treat only the symptoms they have and that they are not taking medications they don’t need. The best way to make sure that you choose the appropriate OTC medication to treat a cold or flu is to understand the different active ingredients and the symptoms they treat.”

There are six major active ingredient categories related to colds and flu symptom relief:

1.     Analgesics relieve pain and discomfort. 

2.     Decongestants provide short-term relief for a blocked or stuffy nose. They work by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose, which helps open up the airways. This relieves the feeling of pressure and allows you to breathe more easily through your nose.

3.     Cough suppressants will help control a persistent, dry cough by acting on the body’s cough reflex. The cough reflex is the body’s way of getting rid of secretions in the airways and lungs. However, in some cases, coughing can be excessive and exacerbate symptoms. 

4.     Mucoactive agents work best if you have a wet cough and will help clear mucus or sputum from the upper and lower airways including the lungs, bronchi and trachea. Mucoactives include expectorants, mucolytics, mucoregulators and mucokinetics.

5.     Bronchodilators relieve coughs by widening the air passages, increasing the airflow.

6.     Antihistamines block histamine and is commonly used to treat allergy symptoms.

“Medications that treat more than one symptom, often referred to as combination medicines, can also be taken to relieve symptoms. For a sore throat, try sucking lozenges – most of them are pleasantly flavoured and contain glycerine to lubricate the throat, while others are medicated. Another option would be throat sprays containing local anaesthetics and anti-inflammatory ingredients.

“To relieve mild or moderate pain, such as headaches or to reduce fevers, take paracetamol. 

“When you’re down with a cold or flu, your body needs plenty of rest and regular fluid intake. Keep in mind that viruses cause colds and flu, therefore antibiotics won’t work. Taking unnecessary antibiotics promotes antibiotic resistance, which makes bacterial infections harder to treat than those caused by non-resistant bacteria.”

Botha says having a basic understanding of the types of ingredients contained in colds and flu medications can help consumers make more informed choices, but she cautions that when in doubt, ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.

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