Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) and Over-the-counter Medications
Over-the-counter medicines (OTCs) are available without a prescription and can help alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms that come with the flu. They are not particularly effective at treating cold symptoms, though they might induce a nice placebo effect.111, 112
Due to the side effects associated with antiviral medications, most people with the flu should rely instead on natural treatments and OTCs.
Common OTCs for treating cold and flu include:
In addition, throat lozenges may be able to reduce the pain caused by a sore throat and may decrease how long it lasts. Lozenges with amylmetacresol and dichlorobenzyl alcohol, such as Strepsils, may be helpful.
Effect of Over-the-counter Medications on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
OTCs do not cure the cold or flu, but they work through various mechanisms to reduce the symptoms associated with these conditions, helping you be a lot more comfortable as your infection runs its course.
How to Use Over-the-counter Medications
Like all medicines, OTCs should be used as directed. See individual products for more information.
Side Effects and Warnings
The fact that OTCs are available without a prescription does not mean that they are not completely harmless. See individual products for more information.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that OTC cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants or children less than two years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including death, convulsions, rapid heart rates, and decreased levels of consciousness. The FDA is still reviewing data about the safety of these products in children aged 2-11 years, since serious side effects have also been reported in this age group.
Diphenhydramine may leave patients feeling drowsy the next day. This drug may not be very effective in providing restful sleep. Common side effects include: constipation, dry mouth and difficulty urinating. Diphenhydramine may also worsen the symptoms of asthma glaucoma,heart problems and prostate gland enlargement.
Diphenhydramine exagerrates the sedating effects of alcohol and other drugs than can cause sedation such as the benzodiazepine class of anti-anxiety drugs (such as diazepam lorazpam,alprazolam), narcotic pain medications (such as hydrocodone) and certain antihypertensive drugs(such as clonidine and propanolol).
Doxylamine succinate (Unisom Sleep Tabs)
Common side effects of doxyclamine include: nausea, dry mouth, stomach pain, constipation, blurred vision, ringing in your ears an dizziness. Call your doctor if these side-effects persist.
Seek emergency medical help if you have any of these signs an allergic reaction such as hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.
Call your doctor immediately if you experience serious side effects sush as: fast, pounding, or uneven heartbeat; confusion, unusual thoughts or behavior, severe dizziness, anxiety, nervousness, difficulty in urinatins, unusual weakness, fever and flu symptoms.
Anti-allergy medicines, narcotic pain relievers, other sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, medicine for seizures, depression or anxiety can increase the sleepiness caused by doxylamine. Inform you doctor if you need to use any of these other medicines while you are taking doxylamine.
Before taking doxylamine, tell your doctor if you are using any of the following drugs:a diuretic (water pill); bronchodilators such as ipratroprium (Atrovent), medications for irritable bowel syndrome; bladder or urinary medications, aspirin or salicylates or other antihistamines, or medicine to treat motion sickness. If you are using any of these drugs, you may not be able to use doxylamine, or you may need dosage adjustments or special tests while on treatment.
Effect of Decongestants on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
Decongestants constrict blood vessels, thereby reducing swelling in inflamed tissues like the nose.
Effect of Antihistamines on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
Antihistamines interfere in the action of substances (histamines) that cause the inflammation-related symptoms of cold and flu (such as runny nose and congestion).
Effect of Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
Pain relievers and fever reducers help treat some of the most common symptoms associated with the cold and flu.
Effect of Expectorants on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
An expectorant decreases the thickness of respiratory secretions (such as mucus) so that they can more easily be coughed up or blown out.
Effect of Cough Suppressants on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
These medications help suppress the urge to cough.
- Paul IM, Yoder KE, Crowell KR, et al. Effect of dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine, and placebo on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Pediatrics. 2004;114:85-90.
- Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;CD001831.