With so many products on the market, it’s important to know how over-the-counter cold and flu medications impact your health.

Americans experience nearly 1 billion colds annually. Also, 35-50 million people in the United States will suffer from the flu during that same time period. These numbers are nothing to sneeze at.

Often, the symptoms of cold and flu are confused for one another, and neither have an easy cure. Therefore, it is common to treat each symptom you experience with an over-the- counter (OTC) medication, which can be a daunting task. Which cold and flu product contains the ingredients you need? How will it interact with prescription medications? Ask your Sam’s Club Pharmacist to help choose the correct product to safely and effectively treat your symptoms.

Prevention of onset

Prevention is the most critical step in treating all symptoms. All persons aged 6 months and older should consider getting an annual flu vaccine to reduce the risk of catching influenza. Colds and flu are spread through the air, so other precautions include frequent hand washing with warm water and soap along with avoiding those who have fever or other symptoms.

Cough/chest discomfort

There are two types of OTC cough medications available. The first are called cough suppressants, which inhibit coughing. Suppressants should be used sparingly, like when the cough is disrupting your sleep. The most common ingredient in OTC cough suppressants is dextromethorphan. Often indicated with a “DM” on the end of the product name, this ingredient can interact with some antidepressant medications. The second type are called expectorants, which helps thin mucus. These are recommended for coughs that expel thick secretions from the lungs. The active ingredient in expectorants is called guaifenesin.


Common medications used to treat fever include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin. Those with liver complications should avoid acetaminophen. NSAIDs should not be used by patients with kidney disease, heart complications, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers or in the third trimester of pregnancy. NSAIDs can interact with common blood pressure medications called ACE Inhibitors, anticoagulants such as warfarin, diuretics or “water pills,” and certain antidepressants.

Nasal congestion

Most nasal congestion can be treated with oral medications or nasal sprays. The most common OTC sprays are oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, normal saline and naphazoline. Frequent use of nasal sprays can lead to worsening congestion, so it’s best to limit use to three to five days. Oral products for congestion include phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Decongestants can exacerbate conditions like hypertension, heart disease, thyroid disorders, enlarged prostate and diabetes. Pseudoephedrine can also interact with certain antidepressant medications. Many of the oral cold and flu medications combine pseudoephedrine with first generation antihistamines like loratadine, fexofenadine, and cetirizine. With all OTC cold and flu medications, it is critical to read the directions and precautions before use and to abide by age and dosing guidelines. Don’t hesitate to ask your Sam’s Club Pharmacist for help in choosing the right OTC to treat your symptoms.