Easy-to-read medicine information about cold and cough medicines.
What are cold and cough medicines?
There are many cold and cough medicines that can be bought from supermarkets and pharmacies. These medicines do not cure your cold or cough but are designed to ease your symptoms. Symptoms of a cold are a runny or congested, stuffy nose, sneezing and watery eyes. Sometimes there may be a cough – either a dry, hacking cough or a wet cough with mucous or sputum.
The information on this page is for cough and cold medicines for adults. For information on children, see cough and cold medicines for children.
|Examples of cold and cough medicines
Cold and cough medicines often contain one or more ingredients that do different things, such as clearing your nose or chest, relieving pain and discomfort or reducing the urge to cough.
Pain relievers can be used to relieve pain and discomfort such as headache and muscle aches and pains. The main types of pain relievers found in cold and cough medicines are:
Paracetamol is a mostly safe if it is taken at the correct dose. Ibuprofen can also ease pain but may not be suitable if you have stomach problems, or if you have asthma, heart, liver or kidney problems. Before taking them, check with your pharmacist or doctor if they are suitable for you.
Note: Paracetamol and ibuprofen are also used to treat fever but mild fever does not need to be treated unless it is causing discomfort. Make sure you don’t take more than the recommended daily dose of paracetamol and ibuprofen.
Decongestants help to unblock a stuffy or blocked nose. They work by narrowing blood vessels in the nose, throat and sinuses. Decongestants are available as nasal sprays or as tablets or capsules. Decongestant nasal sprays clear a blocked nose immediately. Tablets or capsules may take a little longer to work because they need to be absorbed into your body.
Examples of nasal decongestants are oxymetazoline (Drixine®) and xylometazoline (Otrivin®). These are only suitable for short-term use. Do not use them for longer than 7 days. If they are used for longer than this, a rebound, more severe congestion of your nose often develops. Tablets and capsules are not thought to cause this problem when they are stopped. Read more about nasal decongestants.
Other examples of nasal sprays that can ease congestion are:
- saline nasal sprays which can help to thin the mucous and may reduce the amount of secretions from your nose
- ipratropium nasal spray which helps to relieve a runny nose by drying up secretions of the nose and helps to stop mucous glands in the nose from overproducing watery mucous. Note: these can cause nasal dryness and nose bleeds.
Tablets and capsules
Examples of decongestants found in cold and flu tablets and capsules are phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is only available on prescription. These medicines can cause increased blood pressure and heart rate, anxiety, restlessness and sleep problems (insomnia).
Antihistamines may stop runny nose and sneezing in some people but its unclear how effective they are. Examples of antihistamines found in cold and cough preparations are chlorpheniramine, brompheniramine and doxylamine. These antihistamines cause drowsiness and may affect your driving. Read more about antihistamines.
Throat lozenges and sprays
Sore throat products are available as lozenges, sprays or gargles. Some contain anaesthetics (numbing agents) and may provide temporary relief from sore throat. Most of them can be used every 2 to 3 hours. Some lozenges have a lot of sugar in them and may not be suitable for people with diabetes. Read more about sore throat.
Some cough syrups are thought to loosen mucus making it easier to cough up (called expectorants) while others may control the urge to cough (called suppressants). Examples of cough suppressants found in cold and cough medicines are dextromethorphan, pholcodine and codeine. It is unclear whether cough syrups work.
The dose of the different cold and cough medicines will be different, depending on the product. They are available as capsules, tablets, liquid or as a powder that you mix in water.
- Follow the directions on the label or the packaging. It will tell you how much to take, how often to take it, and any special instructions.
- Some cold and cough preparations have a day and night combination. The night doses contain ingredients that may make you drowsy. The day doses are usually non-drowsy. However, be careful when driving or using tools until you know how this medicine affects you.
Natural remedies like vitamin C and echinacea are marketed for the treatment and prevention of colds, but the evidence to support them is weak.
A review on the use of vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold did not find any benefit in the general population but it may be helpful for people doing severe physical exercise, such as marathon runners, or people in cold environments.3 In these people, taking at least 200 mg of vitamin C every day appeared to cut the risk of getting a cold in half. But for the general population, taking daily vitamin C did not reduce the risk of getting a cold.
In a review of studies on echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold, the authors concluded that echinacea products have not been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some echinacea products. The results of individual trials on the use of echinacea to prevent colds show some small benefit.4
Probiotics such as products containing lactobacillus or bifidobacterium strains may reduce how often you get colds and reduce your symptoms by about 1-2 days, but this effect the quality of evidence that showed this benefit was low.5 More trials are needed to confirm these findings.
Garlic is thought to have properties that fight off some viruses such as viruses causing the common cold. There have been some reports that taking garlic supplements may reduce the number of days you feel unwell but an in-depth assessment of the evidence on the use of garlic for the common cold concluded that to-date there is insufficient clinical trial evidence regarding the effects of garlic in preventing or treating the common cold and current studies are of poor quality and cannot be relied on.6
- Cold season: managing without antibiotics BPAC 2018
- Cold season in primary care BPAC 2013
- Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Douglas RM, Hemilä H, Chalker E, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;(1):CD000980.
- Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Feb 20;2:CD000530.
- Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Hao Q, Lu Z, Dong BR, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Sep 7;(9):CD006895
- Garlic for the common cold. Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Nov 11;(11):CD006206.
- Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014 Feb 18;186(3):190-9.