Using Flonase or Nasacort AQ for Cold Symptoms

Corticosteroid nasal sprays such as Nasacort AQ (triamcinolone) and Flonase (fluticasone) are very popular over-the-counter (OTC) medications used to treat itchy and runny noses due to allergies. Though those symptoms can also occur when you have a cold, research shows that these nasal sprays just aren't effective for cold symptoms.

The reason? What causes a runny nose when you have a cold is different from what causes this symptom when you have allergies.

Using nasal spray
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How Corticosteroid Nasal Sprays Work

Corticosteroid nasal sprays like Flonase and Nasacort AQ block the inflammatory agents that your body produces as a response to an allergen, a substance that causes an allergic reaction.

Specifically, they reduce the formation of inflammatory mediators produced by nasal epithelial cells and various allergic cells, such as eosinophils and mast cells.

These cells are what cause the itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, and sneezing you typically experience with an allergy.

What Happens When You Get a Cold?

When you have a runny nose caused by a cold, excess mucus builds up in your sinuses due to swelling and your body's attempt to eliminate the invading germs.

Viral infections cause inflammation—just not allergic inflammation. Nasal corticosteroids may help reduce this inflammation but are not specifically indicated for this reason.

Several medical studies have investigated the use of corticosteroids to treat cold symptoms. Research results do not support the use of these medications for symptomatic relief, but study authors suggest that more research is needed.

Taking oral antihistamines for cold symptoms doesn't help for the same reasons either, unless they're sedating versions like Benadryl (diphenhydramine).

These drugs don't treat a runny nose or watery eyes caused by colds, the flu, or other viral illnesses. But they are often included in multisymptom cold medications because they have anticholinergic side effects, meaning they dry up secretions. Their ability to fight histamine, the chemical in the body's cells that cause many allergy symptoms, is irrelevant, as that effect has no impact on these infections.

What You Can Do

If you start to feel symptoms such as a runny nose or stuffy head, try to determine whether your symptoms are caused by a cold or allergies.

Though they can seem similar, there are a few characteristics that distinguish one from the other, including:

Likely a Cold
  • Productive cough

  • Yellow or green nasal discharge

  • Fever

Likely Allergies
  • Dry cough

  • Clear nasal discharge

  • Itchy eyes/nose/throat

If You Have a Cold

Try other OTC medications to treat the symptoms you have. You can also use a humidifier, or try rinsing your sinuses or taking a steamy shower to treat your cold at home. 

Studies have found that physical interventions such as handwashing are beneficial when you have a cold. Additionally, zinc supplements may be helpful. However, other treatments including ginseng, echinacea, and vitamin C supplementation are not likely to provide a benefit.

If You Have Allergies

Antihistamines or corticosteroid nasal sprays typically work very well for allergies. If you have been using OTC products but are still having symptoms, contact your healthcare provider or allergist for further treatment options.  

Correction - October 31, 2022: This article was updated to clarify which symptoms may distinguish a cold from allergies.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hayward G, Thompson MJ, Perera R, Del Mar CB, Glasziou PP, Heneghan CJ. Corticosteroids for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(10):CD008116. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008116.pub3

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Is It Allergies or a Cold? How to Tell the Difference.

  3. Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidenceCMAJ. 2014;186(3):190–9. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121442

Additional Reading

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.