Here’s a brief rundown of the most common active ingredients and how they could help treat your symptoms.
Antipyretic Agents (Fever Reducers)
Fevers can be treated with nonprescription antipyretic agents, which include aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen sodium. Antipyretic agents reduce fever by blocking the body chemicals that cause pain and elevated temperature.
Acetaminophen and NSAIDs are the primary antipyretics used for the self-treatment of fever.1
Antitussives (Cough Suppressants)
Antitussives (cough suppressants) control or eliminate cough and are the drugs of choice for nonproductive coughs. Dextromethorphan is the most common oral nonprescription antitussive. Menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus are common nonprescription topical antitussives. These agents act centrally in the medulla in the brain to increase the cough threshold.1
Mucus is controlled by protussives (expectorants), which change the consistency of respiratory tract secretions and increase the volume of expectorated sputum. They are the drugs of choice for productive coughs that expel thick secretions from the lungs, albeit with a little difficulty.
Guaifenesin (glyceryl guaiacolate), such as that found in some daytime cold medicine formulas, is the only FDA-approved expectorant. It loosens and thins lower respiratory tract secretions, making minimally productive coughs more productive. Dosage forms include oral liquids, syrups, and immediate-release and extended-release tablets.1
Nasal congestion is treated with oral decongestants (pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine), such as those found in many liquid and tablet cold medicines, and topical (i.e., intranasal) decongestants (oxymetazoline), such as those found in nasal sprays. By stimulating adrenergic receptors and thereby constricting blood vessels, decongestants reduce the blood supply to the nose, decrease the amount of blood in the sinuses, and decrease mucosal swelling.1
There are two types of antihistamines—first-generation (sedating) and second-generation (non-sedating). First-generation antihistamines, such as that found in nighttime cold and flu medicines, reduce symptoms of sneezing and runny nose, whereas second-generation antihistamines do not. First-generation antihistamines are preferred to treat cold symptoms.1
Antihistamine-decongestant combinations are often used to treat common cold symptoms such as runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. The antihistamine diphenhydramine is also a recognized antitussive that decreases cough associated with the common cold. Healthcare professionals must bear in mind that only combinations containing first-generation antihistamines are likely to offer these beneficial effects.1
Other antihistamines, besides diphenhydramine, used to treat cold symptoms include doxylamine succinate, chlorpheniramine, and triprolidine chloride.
Choosing the right type of OTC cold or flu medicine for your symptoms can help your immune system fight off a cold or flu virus. Combined with sleep and a proper diet, you should be able to quickly get back to work, play, and life.
American Pharmacists Association, Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation, American Academy of Physician Assistants. OTC Advisor: Advancing Patient Self-Care; Self Care for Fever, Cough, Cold, and Allergy, 2007.