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Melissa Suran/MEDILL

Many people take over-the-counter cold medicine to fight off the common cold, but some experts say to find other alternatives.


Cold meds may be something to sneeze at, experts say

by Melissa Suran
Jan 20, 2009


Top ten tips to dealing with colds:

  1. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
  2. Use saline nose drops if you’re congested.
  3. Use a humidifier at night and during the day if possible.
  4. Take a Tylenol (an acetaminophen) or Motrin (an ibuprofen) at bedtime to help relieve fever and body aches.
  5. Parents should use bulb syringes to suck out the mucus for babies with stuffy nose.
  6. Wipe down phones, computer keyboards and other appliances that are used by multiple people in your home and office with alcoholic wipes to kill germs.
  7. Don’t share items such as scarves that touch your nose or your mouth.
  8. Do it the Chinese way: take a hot shower, then drink a hot soup with spring onions or garlic, take another hot shower, and sweat it out.
  9. Get lots of rest so your body can fight it off.
  10. Wash your hands.

 Tips courtesy of Jan Engle, Elizabeth Powell and Charles Dumont.



Most remember being a kid at this time of the year, having a cold and Mom taking out the cherry-flavored cold medicine that tasted more like, well, cold medicine. Today, some experts say that although Mom meant well, cold medicine may as well go down the sink.

Jan Engle, a pharmacist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said when it comes to cold medicine, parents especially need to be better educated.

“You’d be surprised how many parents don’t even know the name of the drug administered,” she said.

Engle said another big problem is that people constantly administer the incorrect dose of cold medicine to themselves and to children.

“[People] sometimes use kitchen spoons to measure the dose and they don’t even know how much of the drug was really administered,” she said. “In many cases, they get too little or too much.”

Overdoses can be dangerous. Just recently, Chicagoan Theresa Gary fatally overdosed her 2-year-old son with Benadryl. According to the Chicago Crime Examiner website, the active ingredient in Benadryl annually causes between 20-30 deaths in children under 6 years old.

Last October, the Food and Drug Administration recommended not administering over-the-counter cold medicines to children less than 2 years of age. Because of the life-threatening side effects and the lack of research done on the drugs, the FDA encouraged the voluntary withdrawal of such medications.

Engle said although many drop-dosage cold medicines marketed to children less than 2 years old were taken off the market, the active ingredients are not necessarily dangerous if taken correctly and in the right situation.

Elizabeth Powell, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said that there is really no point in giving cold medicine to children since there is no evidence that such medication even works on children.

"Parents want to find an improvement in symptoms because they want to make their children feel better." Powell said.

Most cold medicines include a variety of active ingredients to help relieve stuffy noses, sneezing and coughing amongst other symptoms. As a result, even if someone administers the proper dose of a medicine, an overdose will occur if there are only signs of one symptom, Powell said.

“If you pick up a bottle of cold medicine, it might say [it’s] good for stuffy nose, watery eyes and a headache, and all you have is a stuffy nose, you will overmedicate yourself and take a drug you don’t need,” Engle said.

In some cases, if an adult takes an incorrect dose of a medication, it can lead to a new range of problems, including increased heart rate or liver damage.

With the current trend leaning towards alternative medicine, one of the more popular systems is homeopathy.

Charles Dumont, the director of the Pediatric Integrative Medicine Program at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, said that homeopathic medicine is the least dangerous route and believes it is effective. Because substances in homeopathic remedies are so diluted, unlike many other prescription and over-the-counter medications, there is no chance that the substance will interact with other chemicals in the body, he said.

“What you see is what you get,” Dumont said. “There is nothing safer.”

One can even use Muscovy duck heart and liver (which contains oscillococcinum, a substance to treat cold-like symptoms) to cure the common cold.

In contrast, both Engle and Powell don’t think homeopathy is the best alternative.

“I don’t recommend homeopathic drugs at all because the FDA does not regulate them and there isn’t good scientific data to show their effectiveness,” Engle said. “It’s more of buyer beware.”

Dumont said while some substances, such as herbs, are not FDA regulated, homeopathic remedies are.

"The confusion with homeopathic remedies is a single remedy may be indicated for different medical problems,” Dumont said. “Likewise, a single problem like a sore throat may express itself differently in different people and so each person would require a different remedy." Dumont said.

If people are determined to take cold medicine though, Engle said make sure to read the label to ensure using a product that matches the symptoms, and when it doubt, ask a pharmacist.

So, Mom may not have been right about cold medicine, but according to Engle, Powell and Dumont, she was right about one thing: washing your hands, which is a leading solution to preventing colds.

The FDA could not be reached for comment.