By Eunice Lee

The process of buying over-the-counter cold medication at a local pharmacy can be dizzying. How can there be five types of Sudafed, six types of Mucinex, and four kinds of DayQuil and NyQuil all in one shelf? Meanwhile, big, bold words like, “maximum strength” and “severe cold” only make your runny nose feel stuffier and unbearable.

Yet, most of us use the pharmacy aisle as our first line of defense when the flu or a cold hits. According to 2008 study posted on the Federal Drug Association website,, 86 percent of 1,000 parents reported that they would use an over-the-counter (OTC) medication prior to or instead of consulting a pediatrician.

But how many of us actually read the drug labels on our medicine boxes? How do we know what really works?

Turns out, most of us don’t have a clue. In 2006, a report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies said that medication errors are among the most common medical errors, harming at least 1.5 million people every year.

The freedom that comes with self-medication comes with risks that most people aren’t aware of. Millions of us snap off the top of a medicine bottle or chug down a cocktail of cough syrups with the hopes that it will treat our pain. But every swallow and chew could do more harm than good. If you’re taking two types of medications with the same active ingredients, chances of overdose are high. This is called drug-drug interaction. It can alter the way one or both of the drugs act in the body and can cause unexpected and deathly side effects such as nausea, headache, heartburn, and dizziness.

In 2000, a survey of pediatricians conducted at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), show that 61 percent of respondents are concerned that parents overdose their children by combining common OTC and cold medication. Even more, 73 percent of pediatricians worry that some parents are confused when selecting OTC medications.

That's a problem, because not all OTC cold and cough medications are created the same. Some have fever reducers; some only relieve nasal decongestion. That’s why it’s important to read the drug labels and use only one OTC cough and cold medicine unless your doctor says it’s okay to consume more.

The FDA requires that all OTC drug product labeling contain the title, active ingredient(s), use(s), warning(s), inactive ingredients, purpose, directions, and other information. Sure, the drug labels contain all these details, but it can seem like a foreign language. It is also debatable whether consumers read and fully understand the drug label before buying products. In a 2002 national survey of consumers and health professionals by the National Council on Patient Information and Education, results found that seven in ten medical professionals – 69 percent - felt that a lack of knowledge about active ingredients contributed a great deal to inappropriate use.

So, what does that mean for consumers? Develop the habit of reading the drug label, just like you would read the nutrition facts of your favorite cereal. In an effort to make them less daunting and more familiar, below is a database of common ingredients in OTC cold medications, as well as some information on folk remedies that help ease cold symptoms. This database is by no means exhaustive. However, it only includes products that have been scientifically supported to aid cold symptoms.

What are your symptoms?


How to pronounce guaifenesin

Good for: runny noses and reducing cough congestion.

Did you know? If you're coughing up mucus, look for products containing this because it thins and loosens mucus in the airways. It will clear congestion and make breathing easier.

A review article published in December 2010 by the New England Journal of Medicine said that guaifenesin is not recommended in treatment guidelines for cystic fibrosis, asthma, or COPD. That’s because those patients need their mucus treatment to be tailored accordingly.


How to pronounce phenylephrine

Good for: congested or stuffy nose

Did you know? Phenylephrine is helpful in clearing up stuffy noses and decreases swelling in the ears and nose. As a decongestant, itreduces discomfort and makes it easier to breathe.

According to the American Diabetes Association, decongestants can release sugar into the blood stream and raise blood pressure. For most people, it’s not a big deal. But if you have diabetes and you’re taking medication to lower high blood pressure, you should avoid phenylephrine. Mixing the two can cause hypertension and an increase risk for stroke.


How to pronounce acetaminophen

Good for: pain relief and reducing fevers

Did you know? Commonly found in OTC drugs like Tylenol (plain), acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States. You can find it in over 600 different medicines!

A lot of OTC medications contain acetaminophen, so check every drug label for the appropriate dose. It's easy to overdose on acetaminophen. Taking more than recommended can lead to liver damage.

Dextromethorphan HBr

How to pronounce dextromethorphan HBr

Good for: cough suppressant

Did you know? If you need to stop coughing, this ingredient is for you. Dextromethorphan HBr can temporarily relieve coughs without mucus (dry coughs).

Dextromethorphan HBr in combination with doxylamine can increase sedation and drowsiness. There is a significant potential for adverse drug-drug interaction.

Doxylamine succinate

How to pronounce doxylamine succinate

Good for: sneezes and allergies

Did you know? As an antihistamine, this medication blocks certain natural substances that your body makes. It relieves allergy and cold symptoms like watery eyes and sneezing.

Doxylamine succinate in combination with dextromethorphan HBr can increase sedation and drowsiness. There is a significant potential for adverse drug-drug interaction.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Good for: reducing cough congestion

Did you know? In 2000, scientists from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha tested why chicken soup might help colds. Lead expert Dr. Stephen Rennard analyzed his own “Grandma’s soup” recipe to commercially available soups from local supermarkets. Using peripheral blood samples from volunteers, scientists found that chicken soup inhibits neutrophil migration, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection. The study presents evidence that both homemade and commercial chicken soup might have an anti-inflammatory activity - which means it aids symptoms like sore throats and coughs.

Neti Pot

Good for: runny noses and nasal decongestaion

Did you know? Neti pots are a form of nasal irrigation, a method that flushes mucus, bacteria, and particles from the nose and sinuses. According to a May 2013 study published by the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology, scientists from Australia, Canada, California, and South Carolina studied the distribution of solution to the sinuses after surgery. A number of devices were tested, ranging from squeeze bottles, neti pots, bulb syringes, and powered irrigation devices. Results showed that large-volume irrigation devices such as neti pots reliably improved both sinus and nasal cavity distribution.

Use distilled or steriled water, not tap water for safe usage. Clean regularly.