Cold & Flu

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for a cold

There are a lot of different over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu medicines out there. From cough medicine to sore throat spray, lozenges to decongestant nasal spray, they cover the spectrum of cold and flu symptoms. But when you’re experiencing sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, and fever, you just want relief to keep you engaged in life. How do you know which OTC cold medicine is right for you, especially during the cold and flu season? Here’s a brief rundown of the most common active ingredients and how they could help treat your symptoms.


Fevers and pain are common symptoms of flu and can be treated with over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol, aspirin, or ibuprofen. They all reduce the fever and pain by blocking the body chemicals that cause pain and elevated temperatures, and are widely used in the treatment of cold and flu symptoms. However, all medicines can potentially have unwanted side effects that may differ from person to person, so it’s important that you read the instructions of all medicines carefully to find out if they are right for you or your children, and check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have any doubts.

Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age due to the risk of Reyes Syndrome. It is recommended not to take more than one type of pain killer unless advised by a doctor. Each type of pain killer has a maximum recommended amount that can be taken at a single dose and the total amount in 24 hours and it is important to follow this recommendation.


Antitussives (cough suppressants) help to control and are the drugs of choice for unproductive coughs. Dextromethorphan is a common oral nonprescription antitussive. Menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus are common nonprescription topical antitussives.


Mucus is controlled by expectorants which change the consistency of respiratory tract secretions and/or break up the mucus. They are the drugs of choice for productive coughs that expel thick secretions from the lungs, albeit with a little difficulty.

Guaifenesin loosens and thins lower respiratory tract secretions, making minimally productive coughs more productive. Dosage forms include syrups.

This is available for adults and children over 12 years of age in the UK.


Nasal congestion is treated with oral decongestants (ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylephrine), such as that found in many liquid and tablet cold medicines, and topical (i.e., intranasal) decongestants (oxymetazoline and xylometazoline), such as that found in nasal sprays. By stimulating adrenergic receptors and thereby constricting blood vessels, decongestants reduce the blood supply to the nose, decrease the amount of blood in the sinuses, and decrease mucosal swelling.

These are recommended for adults and children over 12 years of age in the UK.


First-generation antihistamines, such as that found in nighttime cold and flu medicines, reduce symptoms of sneezing and runny nose and may cause drowsiness. First-generation antihistamines are preferred to treat cold symptoms. Second-generation antihistamines are non drowsy and used to treat allergies.

Antihistamine-decongestant combinations are often used to treat common cold symptoms such as runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Examples of antihistamines are diphenhydramine, doxylamine succinate and chlorpheniramine. Examples of decongestants are ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine.

Choosing the right type of cold or flu medicine for your symptoms can help you relieve the symptoms of a cold or flu. Your pharmacist is a good resource to help you in this choice. Combined with sleep and a proper diet, you should be able to quickly get back to work, play, and life.

All of these over-the-counter treatments are available for adults and children over 12 years of age in the UK.