If you’re suffering from a cold, there’s no shortage of over-the-counter medicines you can take to remedy your various symptoms.
And while that’s a good thing, it can also create a lot of confusion: Do you need a cough suppressant or an expectorant?
Would a decongestant tablet or nasal spray be best to relieve a stuffy nose?
And exactly how many medications are safe to take at once?
Take a deep breath and keep reading. In this article, we’ll not only discuss the typical symptoms of a common cold, we’ll also break down the different types of cold medicines and which ones best treat specific symptoms.
Bookmark this page so you can reference it the next time a cold pops up.
That way, you can quickly be in and out of your pharmacy with the best over-the-counter (OTC) medications for your needs—and be on your way to feeling better sooner.
What Is a Cold?
Similar to the flu, a cold is a viral infection that enters the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes.
It attacks the respiratory system and usually takes about 10 days to run through your system.
The most common symptoms of the common cold include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Low-grade fever (99.9-100.4° F)
- Mild body aches
- A general feeling of unwell
Types of Cold Medicine
Every person and every cold is different.
When symptoms are mild, you may be able to tough it out.
But when you can’t stop coughing, can’t sleep due to discomfort, or simply want relief, you may want to consider cold medicine.
Keep in mind, these medications do not make a cold go away faster.
They only treat the symptoms and do not treat the underlying illness.
Pain relievers may help alleviate body aches, headaches, or fever.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Naprosyn) are the most common pain relievers.
Be careful about combining pain relievers with other OTC medicines.
Many cold medications contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so it’s important to read the ingredients or you may accidentally overdose.
Talk to a pharmacist or your healthcare provider if you are uncertain what to do.
Decongestants help ease the pressure and swelling of the nose, so they’re best for treating nasal congestion or a stuffy nose.
There are two types of decongestants: decongestant pills or nasal sprays.
Pills like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) can loosen up congestion.
However, they can also raise blood pressure, so doctors do not recommend taking them if you have hypertension.
Nasal sprays like oxymetazoline (Afrin), phenylephrine (Sinex), and naphazoline (Privine) are also available.
It is not recommended to use a decongestant spray for more than three consecutive days, or you could experience “rebound congestion”.
This is when the medication becomes less effective. In turn, you might try to use more nasal spray, but that will only lead to more congestion.
Histamine is the active chemical in an allergic reaction, so antihistamines help combat common allergy symptoms.
Whether you have seasonal allergies or the common cold, antihistamines can help treat sneezing or a runny nose.
Common antihistamines include:
- Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- Loratadine (Claritin)
Whether you’re trying to sleep or want to give your lungs a break, cough suppressants may help.
Cough suppressants, or antitussives, dampen the urge to cough and reduce how often you cough.
The most common cough suppressant is dextromethorphan (Vicks DayQuil Cough, Delsym, Robitussin Cough).
There is mixed data about whether cough suppressants are fully effective and if they should be a part of your treatment plan.
Coughing is the body’s natural way of expelling germs and mucus from the lungs, so it is a vital part of the healing process.
At the same time, we all know that getting a full night’s rest can do wonders for treating a cold.
Expectorants also treat coughs.
They work by thinning out the amount of mucus in the upper respiratory tract.
This makes it easier to cough up excess mucus, therefore making coughs more productive.
Expectorants are usually combined with cough suppressants.
Guaifenesin (Robitussin, Mucinex, Robafen) is the most active ingredient in common expectorants.
What Medicines Works Best to Relieve Which Cold Symptoms
Your body’s natural reaction is to fight off a virus through cold symptoms.
For example, a fever kills the cold virus, and a runny nose and cough help expel germs from your body.
So often, using simple home remedies and spending time in bed is the best way to treat a cold.
That said, if you need extra help to get through the day, there are many options that may relieve your cold symptoms.
Keep in mind, the common cold is not curable, and these medicines only offer symptomatic relief.
A runny nose is your body’s natural way of expelling irritants and germs from your nasal passage.
But if you can’t stop dripping, an antihistamine such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Claritin) may help.
As you can see, antihistamine is most commonly found in allergy medication.
If you have a stuffy nose or nasal congestion, you might want to take medicine with the active ingredient pseudoephedrine (like Sudafed).
This oral decongestant loosens up congestion in the nasal passages, making it easier to breathe.
However, be mindful about taking medicines with pseudoephedrine if you have hypertension, as the ingredient may increase blood pressure.
Decongestant sprays with the active ingredients oxymetazoline (Afrin), phenylephrine (Sinex), or naphazoline (Privine) can also open up nasal passages.
However, you should not use nasal sprays for more than three straight days, or you may experience a “rebound effect”.
This causes your body to generate even more mucus and may make you dependent on nasal sprays.
Sneezing is another way your body naturally rids itself of a virus.
However, if you’re tired of reaching for the tissue box, you may want some allergy medication or antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Claritin).
While a mild (a.k.a. low-grade) fever is no cause for concern, you do not want it to become severe.
A pain reliever, like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), may help reduce a fever.
Either is safe for adults and children older than six months old.
Just check the dosing instructions carefully, and always consult a pediatrician before giving medication to children.
Aches and pains
The same medicines used to treat a fever may also help ease mild body aches and pains.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like naproxen (Naprosyn), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil) are some of the best OTC options.
A few choices exist for a sore throat.
If you believe postnasal drip is a contributing factor, decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or loratadine (Claritin) may help dry out the mucus and ease discomfort.
Additionally, pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help relieve painful swallowing.
But if you think the cause of your sore throat is a bacterial infection, see your doctor, who may prescribe an antibiotic.
While medication isn’t a bad choice, natural remedies can also soothe a sore throat.
Try drinking warm beverages like tea with honey, gargling with salt water to reduce inflammation, or using lozenges.
The best cough medicine depends on your situation.
If you want to halt the cough reflex, then you should take an antitussive like dextromethorphan (Vicks Dayquil Cough, Delsym).
If you want to thin out the mucus so it is easier to cough out, then an expectorant like guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robafen) is your best option.
When to See a Doctor
The common cold is not a fatal illness, and it should pass within 10 days.
However, if you experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, make an appointment to see a doctor:
- Difficulty breathing
- Fever that lasts longer than two days
- Symptoms that become extreme or severe
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Symptoms lasting longer than 14 days
- Blood-streaked mucus
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Cold and Cough Medicines. (2021).
The Common Cold: A Review of OTC Options. (2018).
Common Colds: Relief for a Stuffy Nose, Cough and Sore Throat. (2020).
Pain Relievers. (2016).