Finding the best prices at pharmacies near you...

Essential OTC Cold & Flu Medications For Your Winter Medicine Cabinet

Every home needs a well-stocked medicine cabinet and this is especially true during the winter months when the common cold, flu and other winter ailments are particularly prevalent. While there is no cure for the common cold, there are many over-the-counter drugs to reduce those unpleasant cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or sinus congestion. 

Each year, adults in the United States suffer an average of two to three colds, while children are even more susceptible, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most recover from the condition in around a week but there are plenty of cold medications, remedies, and measures you can take to speed up recovery and help you feel better faster.

While the common cold is a minor, if troublesome, ailment, you should seek medical advice from your physician or healthcare provider if symptoms persist for more than ten days, or you feel your symptoms are particularly severe or unusual. You should call a doctor immediately if you or a family member have cold symptoms and are at high risk for serious flu complications, for example, children under three months of age, adults over 65 years, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or asthma. 

For most American adults the common cold will clear up in a few days without the need to consult a medical professional and there are numerous over-the-counter medications to help alleviate the more unpleasant symptoms of the common cold and flu. Here is our guide to some medicine cabinet essentials to ensure you are prepared for flu season and those occasions when the dreaded common cold strikes!

Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers

There are two main varieties of over-the-counter pain-relieving medication: acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Motrin (ibuprofen), both of which can alleviate certain symptoms of the common cold. 


Acetaminophen helps to lower fever and relieve the muscle aches that sometimes accompany the common cold or flu. It is particularly useful for treating pain-related cold symptoms and for reducing fever.

Acetaminophen is one of the active ingredients in most common cold and flu remedies, such as NyQuil, so you need to be careful you do not exceed the stated dose by taking two or more products containing acetaminophen. Consult with your doctor first if you take the blood thinner Coumadin (warfarin) or if you have any liver problems.


NSAIDs, for instance, Motrin or Advil, can be effective in relieving some of the discomfort caused by painful common cold symptoms. These may include ear-ache, headaches, muscle, and joint pain. NSAIDs should not be taken for a long period of time and if you have a history of stomach problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease or asthma, ensure you consult with your physician first.

Nasal Decongestants

Antihistamines & decongestant tablets

Some antihistamines can be used to help treat cold symptoms such as a stuffy nose, runny nose, and sneezing. Not all antihistamines are effective in treating a cold, but some older varieties, including brompheniramine, branded as Bromax, Dimetane Extentab, and other drugs, can reduce congestion. Drowsiness is often a side effect of antihistamines so be sure to check the label or only take these medications at night.

Decongestant tablets, such as Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), may also be used to alleviate the stuffy nose often associated with the common cold. 

Nasal Sprays

There are three varieties of nasal decongestants that may help reduce stuffiness: decongestant nasal sprays, steroidal nasal sprays, and saline nasal sprays. 

  • Decongestant nasal sprays: Available as over-the-counter drugs or in prescription form, decongestant nasal sprays narrow the blood vessels of the nose, which reduces inflammation.
  • Steroidal nasal sprays: Available as over-the-counter medicines or as prescription drugs, these are commonly used to treat allergies but may also be an effective way to treat the nasal congestion that often comes with a cold.
  • Salt-water solutions or saline nasal sprays: These over-the-counter products are used to loosen mucus in the nasal passage. Saline nasal sprays do not contain any active drugs so may be used liberally.

Cough Expectorants and Cough Suppressants

If you have a lingering cough that continues to bother you while you have a cold or during your recovery, there are a number of over-the-counter cold medicines available. Generally, a productive cough (one that brings up phlegm from the lungs) is a good thing, as it helps clear the respiratory system of irritants but in some cases, for example, if a cough prevents you from sleeping, a cough suppressant may be needed.

Cough Expectorants

Expectorants, also known as mucolytics, work by thinning the mucus in the bronchial passage, making it easier for you to cough up phlegm from the lungs. The most common active ingredient in over-the-counter cough expectorants is guaifenesin, which is found in medication such as Mucinex or Robafen.

Antitussives or Cough Suppressants

Antitussive medicines, also known as cough suppressants, work by inhibiting the body’s natural cough reflex. If you have a dry hacking cough, particularly one that keeps you awake at night or interferes with your day-to-day life, a cough suppressant may be what you need. 

The most common active ingredient in antitussives is dextromethorphan, which is found in DayQuil and many other brands of over-the-counter cough suppressant.

Combination Cold & Flu Medicines

Combination cold and flu medicines usually contain two or three active ingredients to help alleviate cold and flu symptoms. Typically, they contain a decongestant, caffeine, and an expectorant but they may also contain acetaminophen, cough suppressants or other active ingredients. For example, Vicks NyQuil Severe Cold & Flu liquid contains acetaminophen to relieve pain and fever; dextromethorphan as a cough suppressant; and the antihistamine doxylamine succinate.

Read the labels!

Read the labels carefully as there are different possible combinations of medications included in combination cold medications. You need to understand what the different active ingredients do and what you need. You may not wish to take a medicine with caffeine at night as it could keep you awake, or you may prefer to avoid varieties with expectorants if you are kept awake with a dry hacking cough.

Furthermore, be careful not to exceed the stated dose of any medication included in a combination cold and flu medicine. Be particularly vigilant with acetaminophen and ensure you factor in the dosage taken via any combination medication as well as the dose from any tablets taken on their own.

Vitamin Supplements, Herbal Remedies and Other Treatments

Vitamin C

Ever heard that you should drink plenty of orange juice when you are under the weather? That’s because it is rich in vitamin C, which is often considered a useful treatment for the common cold. Research is inconclusive regarding the efficacy of vitamin C, but it does seem to boost the immune system and may help to reduce recovery time.


Echinacea, derived from a group of plants in the daisy family, is another favorite herbal remedy for treating the common cold. As with Vitamin C, the efficacy of echinacea is still inconclusive, but some research suggests it has a positive effect, potentially helping reduce the risk of repeated respiratory infections. 

Camphor and Menthol

Topical treatments, for example, ointments containing menthol or camphor, are a natural way to help ease some cold symptoms, particularly a stuffy nose and a cough. Alternatively, if you suffer from problems with sinus and nasal congestion, you may benefit from using liquid menthol in a vaporizer, a device that releases steam for you to inhale, helping clear stuffiness.


There is no cure for the common cold but all the treatments listed above may be used to ease cold symptoms and speed up recovery. However, there are preventative measures you can take to minimize the likelihood you will catch a cold this winter. 

  • Maintain good hygiene, particularly when washing your hands.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthily, get plenty of exercise and learn to manage your stress levels.
  • Stay away from other people who are sick.

Is it a Common Cold or the Flu?

During flu season, which in the United States typically peaks between December and January, many people contract the common cold, but it can be difficult to spot the difference between a cold and the flu as the symptoms are very similar

Flu symptoms are usually more severe and last longer than those of a cold, and if your symptoms last for more than ten days, seem more severe or are otherwise unusual, or if you are at high risk of serious flu complications, you should contact a doctor straight away. Your physician will be able to determine whether you have a cold or the flu and can recommend an appropriate course of treatment.

A word on the Flu Vaccine...

Each year, millions of Americans opt to get the flu vaccine, an annual immunization tailored to protect against the changing strains of the flu. To date, around 166 million doses have already been distributed in the United States for the 2018-19 flu season. The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone over the age of six months. 

People categorized as at high risk of developing serious flu complications, and who should seriously consider the vaccine, include: people with certain medical conditions (for example, asthma, sickle cell disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and kidney disorders, among others); children under five years of and those under two in particular; adults over 65 years of age; pregnant women, and nursing home residents.

If you are concerned about your cold or flu symptoms or would like more information on the flu vaccine, speak to your physician. Stay well this winter!