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Ingredient Explainer: What’s In Over-the-Counter Cough, Cold & Sinus Medications?


By Lindsay Hausch

The average adult suffers two to three colds each year, which means sooner or later you’re likely to end up in the over-the-counter aisle of the drug store. There’s a lot of information to wade through when you’re considering cold & flu medicines, namely, what ingredients treat which symptoms, and how do those ingredients effect your body? What should you take to relieve a fever, reduce aches and pains, or relieve sinus and nasal congestion?

What ingredients are in cold medicines?

Here’s what you need to know:

Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers: These class of products targets your fever and mild aches and pains with an over-the-counter (OTC) medication that contains one of these pain relievers/fever reducers.

  • Acetaminophen (a-SEET-a-MIN-oh-fen): Acetaminophen is a pain reliever and fever reducer. In cough & cold medications it is used to relieve the aches commonly associated with a cold or flu. It can also help relieve headaches and temporarily reduces fever.  Common OTC, cold and sinus medications with acetaminophen include TYLENOL®, SUDAFED®, ROBITUSSIN®, NYQUIL®, and EXCEDRIN®.
  • Ibuprofen (EYE-bue-PROE-fen): Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug that helps relieve pain and reduce fever in adults and children 6 months or older. Similar to acetaminophen, it helps relieve aches and pains commonly associated with a cold or flu. Ibruprofen is included in many OTC, cold and sinus medications such as ADVIL® and MOTRIN®.
  • Naproxen (na-PROX-en): Naproxen is an anti-inflammatory drug that helps to relieve mild to moderate pain including common cold and flu symptoms. It is another option for reducing fever, and is available in many OTC drugs such as ALEVE® and SUDAFED®.

Nasal Decongestants: These products ease your discomfort with medication designed to target congestion in your nasal and sinus passages. Look for the following ingredients for decongestion.

  • Pseudoephedrine (SOO-doe-ee-FED-rin): Pseudoephedrine is a part of the class of drugs called nasal decongestants, which is available in many cough and cold medicines. It works to shrink the blood vessels in the nose for relief in your sinus passages. It relieves discomfort from colds and allergies, and can be found in many common OTC cold and sinus medications such as ALEVE®,  SUDAFED® and MUCINEX®.
  • Phenylephrine (FEN-il-EFF-rin): Phenylephrine is also categorized as a decongestant. Common over-the-counter cough, cold and sinus medications with phenylephrine include SUDAFED PE®, NYQUIL®, TYLENOL® Sinus, and ADVIL®.

Expectorants: Also referred to as cough suppressants, these are designed to alleviate chest congestion and to facilitate mucus removal by helping to help clear your airways with a medication designed to loosen mucus and phlegm in the lungs.

  • Guaifenesin (gwye-FEN-e-sin): Guaifenesin is an expectorant that is used to relieve chest congestion. It thins the mucus in air passages, which in turn makes it easier to clear the airways. Common over-the-counter cough, cold and sinus medications with guaifenesin include ROBITUSSIN®, MUCINEX® and DAYQUIL®.
  • Dextromethorphan (dex-troe-meth-OR-fan): Dextromethorphan is part of a class of medications called antitussives, which temporarily relieve coughing from the cold and flu. It works by suppressing brain signals that trigger the cough reflex. Common over-the-counter cough, cold and sinus medications with dextromethorphan include TYLENOL Cold®, SUDAFED PE®, ROBITUSSIN® and NYQUIL®.

Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine in the body which cause runny nose and sneezing when you have a cold or flu. They may also cause drowsiness in some user. Avoid alcohol, sedatives and tranquilizers and be careful when driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery while taking OTC drugs containing antihistamines.

  • Diphenhydramine (dye-fen-HYE-dra-meen): This antihistamine helps to relieve cold symptoms, hay fever, and other upper respiratory allergies. Find this ingredient in common OTC medications such as BENADRYL® and TRIAMINIC®.
  • Chlorpheniramine (klor-fen-IHR-ah-meen): Chlorpheniramine relieves the runny nose and sneezing due to the common  cold and additionally relieves itchy nose and throat, and itcy watery eyes associated with seasonal allergies. It can be found in TYLENOL® Cold and ADVIL®.
  • Doxylamine (dox-IL-a-meen): Doxylamine is also categorized as an antihistamine and can be found in some OTC cold and allergy medications such as NYQUIL® and TYLENOL® Cold.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medications may help to relieve some symptoms such as congestion, fever, runny nose, cough and headache, but they do not treat the cause or shorten the length of the illness. Cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under the age of 4 years. Remember to always read and follow product label. This information serves as a general guide and should not take the place of medical advice.

The links provided in this article are for educational purposes only. No sponsorship or endorsement is implied. Information was used from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

©Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. 2016

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