Using Flonase or Nasacort AQ for Cold Symptoms

Man using nasal spray

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Nasal sprays for allergies such as Nasacort AQ (triamcinolone) and Flonase (fluticasone) are very popular over-the-counter medications used to treat itchy and runny noses. They are frequently recommended by healthcare providers for allergy symptoms and many people take them for cold symptoms, as well. So will these nasal sprays actually help if you have a cold and not allergies?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Although these nasal sprays (which are classified as corticosteroids) are popular medications, the science and research show that they just aren't effective for cold symptoms. The runny nose you experience when you have a cold occurs for different reasons than when you have allergies. 

How Nasal Spray Corticosteroids Work

Nasal spray allergy medications such as Flonase and Nasacort AQ are corticosteroids. They don't work in exactly the same way but they do block the inflammatory agents that your body produces as a response to an allergen.

They specifically function by reducing 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 itching, 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 and head due to swelling and your body's attempt to eliminate the invading germs. So taking corticosteroids really does nothing to stop this or help with these symptoms, because it's not an inflammatory issue. 

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, unless it's an older, sedating version such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) as a result of anticholinergic side effects, meaning they dry up secretions. Although antihistamines are often included in multi-symptom cold medications, they don't treat runny nose or watery eyes caused by colds, the flu or other viral illnesses.

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. 

If you have a cold:

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

Studies have found that physical interventions such as hand-washing are likely 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 over-the-counter products but you are still having symptoms, contact your healthcare provider or allergist for further treatment options.  

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Article Sources
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  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. Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidenceCMAJ. 2014;186(3):190–199. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121442

Additional Reading
  • Triamcinolone Nasal Spray. MedlinePlus 26 Jan 15. American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. 

  • Fluticasone Nasal Spray. MedlinePlus 26 Jan 15. American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services.