A Columbus doctor and pharmacist weigh in on the best cold and flu medications

Walking down the cold medicine aisle at a local pharmacy or grocery store, customers will find shelves filled with various treatments, some with brand names and others relatively lesser known.

It’s a sight that experts say can overwhelm people looking for a quick fix for cold or flu symptoms.

“I tell everyone that generic products work just as well as branded products,” said Matt Fishley, chief pharmacist for Mount Carmel Healthof the retail pharmacy division. “But, whenever you are unfamiliar with the product, I would check with the pharmacist or your doctor.”

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With cold and flu season here, over-the-counter cold and flu medications will find their way into many grocery carts and homes for the next few months.

With that in mind, The Dispatch spoke with Fishley and a local doctor to find out which drugs patients should be using – and which they should avoid.

Here is what they said.

Relief of pain and fever

Two of the best-known over-the-counter medications remain the best drugs for stifling body aches and fever, says family physician Dr Stephen Auciello at OhioHealth.

Ibuprofen — which is Advil and Motrin’s drug — is one, Auciello said. The other, he said, is acetaminophen, which is the drug in Tylenol.

The only thing people should be careful about is using ibuprofen or acetaminophen in combination with other medications, Auciello said. This is because versions of some cold medications, such as Mucinex or NyQuil, already include one of the two pain relievers.

Contain a cough

The best way to calm a cough depends on the type of cough the person has.

If it’s a wet cough caused by sinus drainage, taking an oral antihistamine might help dry up the mucus and phlegm causing the reaction, Fishley said. Antihistamines include products like Benadryl or Zyrtec.

For a dry cough that persists after an illness ends, Fishley said people could try cough syrups like Robitussin or Delsym. The medications contain an active ingredient called dextromethorphan which is believed to help suppress coughs.

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“The cough is a little harder to treat…” Fishley said. “Dextromethorphan…that cough suppressant would probably be the one I’d go with.”

Lozenges can also be effective in soothing a persistent cough. But, Auciello said, people should pay attention to health labels for cough drops and should avoid taking more than the labels recommend.

Congestion and nasal problems

For stuffy noses, the doctor and pharmacist recommended steroid-based nasal sprays, such as Flonase.

Sprays like Afrin can also be helpful in temporarily relieving nasal congestion. But Fishley warned that overuse could lead to rebound-like congestion.

“These are reasonably safe drugs,” Auciello said. “There aren’t usually a lot of significant side effects from using these.”

Saline nasal rinses and things like neti pots can also be helpful in clearing a person’s sinuses.

Auciello and Fishley each recommended one oral medication in particular to treat congestion: pseudoephedrine.

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The drug is most effective at relieving congestion that people can suffer from colds, they said.

Although patients do not need a prescription for pseudoephedrine, they will need to take an extra step to obtain it. This is because the drug is stocked behind the pharmacy counter in most stores, due to the fact that it can be abused or used to make methamphetamine.

The brand name SUDAFED behind the counter contains pseudoephedrine. Patients should also be aware, Auciello and Fishley said, that SUDAFED also produces treatments of the same name that are not stocked in pharmacies and do not contain pseudoephedrine.

Patients with heart conditions should consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking a decongestant, as some products can cause an increase in blood pressure, Fishley and Auciello said.

Supplements and other things

Fishley and Auciello warned people against using supplements to relieve colds.

There’s some evidence that vitamins like zinc or vitamin C can shorten the lifespan of a cold or flu, but Auciello said people shouldn’t rely on either.

There are a number of products on the market, such as the popular Airborne tablets, which claim to shorten the duration of a cold.

However, most supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and therefore subject to little regulation or approval process. That means what they contain may have very little effect, Auciello said.

“A lot of the time these things are just a combination of different vitamins,” Auciello said. “There are limited benefits in many herbal and dietary supplements.”



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