Over-The-Counter Cold and Flu Medications

With so many over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu medications available to treat your symptoms, it is hard to know which ones to choose. This list of medications can help you treat various cold and flu symptoms.

First, you need to figure out which symptoms are bothering you and then you can see what your options are for each one or learn how multi-symptom medications may help. If you want to avoid typical cold and flu medications, we have information about herbal and natural products as well. 


OTC Medications for Runny Noses, Sneezing and Itching

Woman sneezing
Allergies can be difficult to deal with. Sean Justice/Getty Images

There are multiple medicine options available over the counter for runny noses, sneezing and itching. These are known as antihistamines. They will help dry up your runny nose and stop you from sneezing and itching so much. They primarily work to treat these symptoms when caused by allergies, so don't be alarmed if they don't help all that much when you have a cold or another respiratory virus.


OTC Medications for Pain Relief and Fever Reduction

Ibuprofen for pain and fever relief. Richar Goerg/E+/Getty Images

Several different medications are available over the counter for bringing down fevers and relieving minor aches and pains. They are sold under brand names such as Tylenol, Motrin, Advil, and Aleve and also come in generic form.

Children under the age of 18 should not take aspirin unless specifically instructed to do so by their health care provider. Taking aspirin or medicines that contain salicylates when a child has a cold or other virus puts them at an increased risk of developing Reye syndrome


OTC Medications for Congestion

What type of congestion are you dealing with?. Eric Audras/ONOKY/Getty Images

Having a stuffy head can not only be uncomfortable, but it can also lead to headaches and sinus infections. A few options are available if you are looking for an over the counter medication to get rid of your congestion. These medicines are known as decongestants.

In the U.S., pseudoephedrine (PSE) is available only behind the pharmacy counter but still without a prescription. Several drug companies, including the makers of Sudafed, have replaced PSE with a medication called phenylephrine. It is available in the cold and flu aisle. Unfortunately, it is not quite as effective as PSE for many people. 


OTC Medications for Cough

Cough Medications. Scott Olsen/Getty Images News

A cough is one of those annoying symptoms that is hard to treat. You never know if you need to do something about it or what could be causing it. You may want to evaluate your cough before taking cough medication. If you decide that an over-the-counter cough medication would be right for you, a choice still must be made between one that breaks up your chest congestion (expectorant) and one that stops your cough (suppressant).

Expectorants can be really useful to loosen thick mucus and allow it to drain. This type of cough medication doesn't actually stop the cough but could reduce the frequency of your cough because the thick mucus is not irritating your throat as much. 

Cough suppressants are not recommended for children. They are not very effective and have side effects.


OTC Medicines for Multiple Symptoms

Sick woman in bed
What should you do when you are sick?.

If you have more than one symptom you need to treat (which most people do when they get a cold or the flu) you may want to consider a medication that treats multiple symptoms. Many options are available, just make sure you are taking one that treats only the symptoms you have. Taking medication for symptoms you do not have is not only unnecessary, but it can also be dangerous.


Natural and Herbal Medications for Cold and Flu

Vitamin C
Vitamin C - what can it do for you?. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Many people prefer natural or herbal treatments when it comes to their health. These can be good options, but it is important to talk with your doctor about what herbs you are taking. They can interact with other medications you may be on or they may be dangerous for people with certain diseases. Because herbal supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, they do not always list potential side effects or interactions with other drugs.

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  1. Vassilev ZP, Kabadi S, Villa R. Safety and efficacy of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for use in children. Expert Opin Drug Saf. 2010;9(2):233-42. doi:10.1517/14740330903496410