Over-the-counter 101

By: Stefanie Wallace, Dec 06, 2010
  Article

Your guide to common cold and flu medications

Searching for medications at the drugstore can be overwhelming, especially when you aren't feeling so hot. Here's a quick guide to help you narrow your search and find relief based on your symptoms.

If you have…

Headache, body aches and/or fever… Try an over-the counter pain reliever, like acetaminophen (Tylenol), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, (NSAID) like Aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or naproxen sodium (Aleve). These can help bring a fever down and help relieve your head or body aches. 

Nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose… An oral decongestant will help relieve any buildup of mucus or phlegm and allow your sinuses to drain. Decongestants can be found in a combination pill form with a pain reliever or NSAID, such as Advil Cold and Sinus or Tylenol Cold and Flu. Plain decongestants are only available behind the pharmacist's counter. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or any other medical condition, ask the pharmacist what you can use to help relieve your symptoms, as decongestants can cause blood sugar and blood pressure levels to rise. Saline nasal sprays and antihistamines, such as Reactine or Claritin, can help relieve runny noses and sneezing.

Cough… Finding a cough remedy can be particularly confusing, as there seem to be endless bottles of cough syrup lining drugstore shelves. There are different types of coughs and, as such, different types of cough syrup. To get rid of that persistent dry cough and annoying tickle in your throat, try a cough suppressant. It will lessen the urge to cough but should only be used for a dry cough. An expectorant helps treat a cough that produces mucus, by thinning the breathing tubes, relieving chest congestion and making it easier to breathe. As with decongestants, check with the pharmacist to make sure whatever cough syrup you choose won't interact with any medications you're currently taking or conditions you have.

Sore throat… Most sore throats aren't bacterial infections, so antibiotics aren't required. But sore throats are particularly troublesome because they can make eating, drinking, talking and swallowing painful. Lozenges will soothe the irritated throat tissue, and there are lozenges available with a numbing agent for temporary pain relief. There are also numbing sprays that may temporarily numb the mouth and throat. Alternatively, an over-the-counter pain reliever or NSAID may help relieve pain and reduce any swelling and inflammation.

Pharmacist Paul Cavanagh Sr. stresses the importance of consulting with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure the over-the-counter medications you take won't interact with or affect any medications or medical conditions you have. "Make sure you are helping yourself by taking the proper medication to relieve your symptoms,” he says. “OTC drugs can certainly help, but it's important to remember they aren't a cure. Lots of rest and fluids will help your body heal."

Since graduating from McMaster University and Sheridan College, Stefanie has ventured into the world of community newspapers, web projects and trade publications. Her favourite topics include food, lifestyle, entertainment and environmental issues, and she loves learning about different ways to improve her health and wellness. Her work has appeared in Canadian Pizza, Canadian Biomass and on Agrobiomass.com. Besides reading, writing and copyediting, Stefanie loves to travel, cook and spend time with her friends and family.