Cough & cold medicines in adults

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 the cold or cough but are designed to ease the symptoms.

Symptoms of a cold are a runny nose, or a congested, stuffy nose, sneezing, watery eyes. Sometimes there may be a cough – either a dry, hacking cough or a wet cough with mucous or sputum.

Examples of cold and cough medicines are:

  • Codral®
  • Coldrex®
  • Lemsip®
  • Dimetapp®
  • Robitussin®
  • Benadryl®
  • Duro-Tuss®
  • Maxiclear®
  • Sinutab®
  • Sudafed PE®.

Ingredients

Cold and cough medicines often contain one or more ingredients that do different things, such as clearing the nose or chest, relieving pain and discomfort or reducing the urge to cough.

Common types of ingredients include:

Nasal decongestants 

Nasal decongestants unclog or unblock a stuffy nose.They work by narrowing blood vessels in the nose, throat and sinuses.

Examples of decongestants found in cold and cough preparations are:

  • phenylephrine
  • pseudoephedrine.

Examples of nasal decongestants in nasal sprays or drops are:

  • oxymetazoline
  • xylometazoline.
Antihistamines

Antihistamines stop runny noses and sneezing. Examples of antihistamines found in cold and cough preparations are:

  • chlorphenamine
  • brompheniramine
  • doxylamine.
Pain relievers

Pain relievers ease fever, headaches and minor aches and pains. The main types of pain relievers found in cold and cough medicines are:

Expectorants

Expectorants are found in cough preparations. It loosens mucus making it easier to cough up. It is unclear whether expectorants actually work.

Examples of expectorants found in cold and cough medicines are:

  • guaifenesin.
Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants may control the urge to cough.

Examples of cough suppressants  found in cold and cough medicines are:

  • dextromethorphan
  • pholcodine
  • codeine.

Dose

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

Natural remedies like vitamin C and echinacea are marketed for the treatment and prevention of colds, but the evidence to how effective these remedies are is weak.  

Vitamin C

A review on the use of vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold did not find any benefit in the normal population. The evidence suggests that vitamin C may be helpful in people exposed to brief periods of severe physical exercise such as marathon runners or people in cold environments. (1)

Echinacea

In a recent 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. (2)

References

  1. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Douglas RM, Hemilä H, Chalker E, et al. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD000980.
  2. Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, et al. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Feb 20;2:CD000530. 
  3. Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014 Feb 18;186(3):190-9. 
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Dr J Bycroft, GP Last reviewed: 30 May 2015