by Kassel K

Colds are caused by viruses; in fact, there are over 200 different viruses that cause colds. There are no medications to cure colds. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. However, there are a variety of products that may reduce cold symptoms. Many of these can be bought without a prescription. The main types of over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications are:

These medications may help reduce your symptoms. However, see your doctor if you have any of the following:

IMAGE People with moderate to severe heart or lung disease, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, angina, and high blood pressure, should consult with their doctor early in the course of their symptoms and before taking any medication. Infants should also be seen earlier in the course of their illness, especially if they are very young.


Analgesics relieve aches and pains and reduce fever. The main types include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen

How These Medications Work

Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, and naproxen, slow the formation of certain prostaglandins. These are substances in the body that are involved in various processes including pain and body temperature. Acetaminophen probably works in a similar way, but it lacks the anti-inflammatory effects of NSAIDS.

Proper Use

Take analgesics with food and a glass of water to decrease the chance of stomach upset. Delayed-release and extended-release tablets have a special coating that makes them easier on the stomach.

Precautions While Using This Medication

Accidental overdosage —Many OTC medications as well as prescription pain medications contain acetaminophen. Although acetaminophen is quite safe when used as directed, it can cause liver damage when taken in excess. Make sure to read the labels and do not double up on acetaminophen.

Children and teens— Aspirin is not recommended for children and teens with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving aspirin to a child or teen. Children can be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Pregnancy— Acetaminophen is usually considered the safest pain and fever reducer to use during pregnancy. Do not take aspirin during pregnancy unless your doctor has ordered it.

Alcohol— If you will be taking more than an occasional 1-2 doses of acetaminophen, do not drink alcohol. Doing so may increase the chance of liver damage, especially if you drink large amounts of alcoholic beverages regularly, if you take more acetaminophen than is recommended on the package label, or if you take it regularly for a long time.

Certain conditions— If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an analgesic:

Possible Side Effects

Possible side effects of analgesics include:

  • Abdominal or stomach cramps, pain, or discomfort
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Easy bruising
  • Rash


Antitussive medications, also called cough suppressants, are used to control coughing however, there is limited evidence that they work. The main nonprescription antitussive is dextromethorphan.

How This Medication Works

Dextromethorphan is thought to relieve cough by acting directly on the cough center in the brain to depress the cough reflex.

Proper Use

Antitussives should not be used for persistent or chronic cough that occurs with smoking, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, or for cough accompanied by excessive mucus or phlegm.

Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely. In some cases, dextromethorphan can be habit forming.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an antitussive:

  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Slowed breathing
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Pregnant

Possible Side Effects

  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal upset
  • Slight drowsiness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nervousness or restlessness


Expectorants are used to clear phlegm from the lungs. Phlegm is an abnormal production of mucus. However, there is limited evidence that they work. The main non-prescription expectorant is guaifenesin.

How This Medication Works

Guaifenesin is thought to increase respiratory tract fluid, which should reduce the thickness of phlegm in the lungs and enable it to be cleared more easily.

Proper Use

Drink plenty of water while taking guaifenesin to help loosen phlegm in the lungs.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant.

Possible Side Effects

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Rash


These drugs may help to reduce congestion. A common decongestant that is available over the counter is pseudoephedrine.

How This Medication Works

Oral and nasal decongestants treat cold symptoms by narrowing the blood vessels in the body, including the nasal passages. Oral decongestants are taken by mouth. Nasal decongestants are applied directly to the nose.

Proper Use

Follow the dosage instructions on the product label or given by your doctor closely.

Precautions While Using This Medication

If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant:

  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart disease or a blood vessel disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Pregnancy

Possible Side Effects

  • Nervousness
  • Excitability
  • Restlessness
  • Racing heart
  • Tremulousness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Weakness
  • Trouble sleeping

Nasal decongestants may result in addiction if used more than 3-4 days.

To avoid sleeping difficulties, take the last dose of decongestant several hours before bedtime.

With every medication, there are important precautions to consider. These include allergies, interactions with other drugs and medical conditions, and safety during pregnancy, lactation, and other stages of life.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 


Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) 

The College of Family Physicians of Canada 


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Colds and the flu—treatment. Family Doctor American—Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: Updated December 2016. Accessed October 2, 2017.

Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):153-159.

Simasek M, Blandino DA. Treatment of the common cold. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(4):515-520.

Upper respiratory infection (URI) in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: . Updated May 14, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017.

Upper respiratory infection (URI) in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated March 3, 2016. Accessed October 2, 2017.

1/2/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Thompson M, Vodicka TA, Blair PS, et al. Duration of symptoms of respiratory tract infections in children: systematic review. BMJ. 2013;347:f7027.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2017
  • Update Date: 10/15/2015