Reading Over-The-Counter Cold and Allergy Medication Labels

January 17, 2010

There are many different over-the-counter allergy and cold medications available.  It is often very confusing figuring out what to buy in the drug store with so many different products on the shelves.   The key to making a decision is looking at the active ingredients of the products. The active ingredients are always listed on the label of the medication.  It is much more important to read the active ingredients, than to pay attention to the fancy labels and packaging.

Over-the-counter allergy and cold medications basically contain one or more of five major types of medications: 1)Antihistamines, 2)Decongestants, 3)Pain medications, 4)Cough suppressants and 5)Expectorants.

1. Antihistmines: There are two major types of antihistamines that are available over-the-counter, those that make most people drowsy and those that don’t.  The most common antihistamines available that make most people drowsy are Diphenhydramine, Chlorpheniramine and Brompheniramine.  Diphenhydramine is the active ingredient in Benadryl.  There are two over-the-counter antihistamines that do not cause drowsiness,- Loratadine and Cetirizine. Loratadine is the active ingredient in Claritin and Cetirizine is the active ingredient in Zyrtec.   Cetirizine may cause some drowsiness in a small percentage of people.

2. Decongestants: The major decongestants available in over-the-counter medications are Phenylephrine and Pseudoephedrine.

3. Pain medications: The major pain medications available in over-the-counter cold and allergy preparations are Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) and Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in Advil or Motrin)

4. Cough suppressants: Dextromethorphan is the main cough suppressant you will see in preparations.

5. Expectorants: Guafenisin is the main expectorant you will see in preparations.

Cold and allergy medications that call themselves non-drowsy, usually will not contain a sedating antihistamine.  In fact, they might not contain any antihistamine at all.  If you are mainly taking the product for allergy reasons, you would want to take an antihistamine.  Products labeled HBP (high blood pressure) usually do not contain decongestants since decongestants can cause an elevation of blood pressure.

The amount of each ingredient is indicated on the label in milligrams (mg).  You can compare dosages of specific ingredients milligram for milligram.  For instance, a product that contains 120mg of pseudoephedrine has 4 times as much of that ingredient in it than a product that contains 30mg of pseudoephedrine.  Since pseudoephedrine can cause potential dose related  side effects, your doctor might not want you to be on that higher dose.

You can not compare the milligram dosages of one ingredient with that of another ingredient. It is wrong to think that a higher milligram dosage of one ingredient is stronger than a lower mg dosage of another ingredient.  For instance, 30mg of one medication could be stronger, weaker or equivalent to 5 mg of another medication.  This is true for any class of medication.

It is important to take the medications as indicated on the label or to ask your doctor if you are unsure of how much to take.  It is also important to be careful about combining different products since there might be overlapping active ingredients that could result in taking too much of one medication.  For instance, if you are taking a cold medication that contains acetaminophen, you would want to be very careful about the milligram dosage of acetaminophen in that medication before taking Tylenol along with it.


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