It is sometimes a challenge to try and find over-the-counter cold medications. One thing you must not fail to do is listing the ingredients and matching them with the symptoms you have. “Assess what’s bothering you the most, and then target the medication that’s appropriate for the symptom,” advises William J. Hueston, MD, professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “Make sure you understand what the medicine is for before you buy it.”

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Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) prevent inflammation and decrease the level of fevers. These are good for a sore throat, headache, muscle aches, or fever. They include ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin, naproxen and (Aleve), among others. Many combination cold medications include an NSAID.
Reasons to avoid:
In case you take NSAID for blood clots, rheumatoid arthritis, or another condition, consult experts before taking NSAIDs for cold relief. These are bad for acid reflux or gastric ulcers or mixing them with any medicine that affects the stomach. It sometimes triggers asthma too.


Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol that is used in most cold medications which are given to people having fever or aches and pains. “Tylenol can often be less upsetting to the stomach than NSAIDs,” Dr. Hueston reveals.
Reasons to avoid:
Those who already have hepatitis or cirrhosis should avoid acetaminophen. It is highly dangerous for people having liver problems.


Antihistamines are good for symptoms of an allergy such as uncontrollable sneezing, a runny nose, itchy sensation, and watery eyes. They can be diphenhydramine (Benadryl), brompheniramine (Dimetapp), and loratadine (Claritin). Dr. Hueston also state, “Even when you take combination medicines, antihistamine is not the ingredient that’s helping you.”
Reasons to avoid:
Sleepiness as a result of some type of antihistamines (Benadryl, Dimetapp) can cause problems at work, while driving, and your daily activities.


Decongestants are good for a stuffy nose. They can be of many types namely pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE). “You can still go to the pharmacy and pick up a box, but it’s somewhat restrictive because you have to sign for it at the counter,” advises Dr. Hueston.
Reasons to avoid:
You may find yourself having fast heartbeats and/or shakes from these drugs. “This reaction is due to the way they metabolize the decongestant,” clarifies Dr. Hueston. Decongestants sometimes increase blood pressure so it is advisable to avoid them if you already have severe hypertension.


These are also known as mucolytics, helps reduce congestion because they loosen the mucus trapped inside the lungs. They help in coughing out. The main constituent is called guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion).
Reasons to avoid:
Side effects may be a headache, nausea, or vomiting.

Cough suppressants

Also known as antitussives, these can suppress coughing in case they have dextromethorphan or codeine, Dr. Hueston claims. Codeine is advisable for people with a severe cough. Codeine needs a prescription to be bought from the pharmacy. Dextromethorphan is also the primary ingredient in most medications.
Reasons to avoid:
People having constipation and need to stay alert at their job must avoid taking codeine. Dextromethorphan also has side-effects but is milder.

Nasal decongestants

Nasal sprays like oxymetazolin (Afrin, Nasin, and others) go straight to the nose, helps in clearing sinus almost immediately.
Reasons to avoid:
If a nasal decongestant is overused it can result in dependency. People with high blood pressure must avoid using them.

Dangerous combinations

In case you mix up several over-the-counter remedies, you might end up using more than the healthy dose of a drug or class of drug. “Watch out when taking two of the same medications,” Dr. Hueston reveals, “Don’t take two different decongestants, for example, and if you take a combination or multi-symptom medicine, you probably shouldn’t take anything else.”
Dr. Hueston advises people to use “one medication for one symptom.”


Zinc helps in relieving sore throat reveals Dr. Hueston, who suggests zinc lozenges to be used by patients who have a sore throat.
Reasons to avoid:
Zinc can cause irritation in your mouth and even upset your stomach. Too much of zinc can also impair your immune system.