When is it Necessary to Use Cold Medication?

When is it Necessary to Use Cold Medication?
  • Taking cold medication unnecessarily can result in side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, high blood pressure, acid reflux, and negative drug interactions.
  • Certain things like hot tea with lemon, hot showers, honey, and plenty of water can help you feel better and relieve mild cold symptoms.
  • If your symptoms continue to worsen, follow a doctor’s instructions regarding cold medication practices.

Before you reach for the cold medication, take a minute to assess whether or not you really need it.

In a post-pandemic world, something as minor as a sniffle may feel like a much bigger deal—or at the very least, requiring an explanation.

General cold symptoms may lead people to take cold medications preemptively, but ultimately, this could do more harm than good for your health.

Taking cold medications unnecessarily can open you up to a variety of undesirable side effects.

“Oftentimes cold medicine will make people drowsy,” Eric Ascher, DO, a family medicine physician at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital. “This is not ideal if people have long drives to work, are caretakers, or need to make important decisions.” 

Additionally, Ascher explained that cold medicine can make people dizzy, cause high blood pressure, or worsen acid reflux.

Aside from those negative side effects, cold medication also has the potential to mix poorly with a different medication someone may already be taking.

That’s why it’s always important to check the ingredients and side effects listed on the packaging of any over-the-counter medication.

“The packaging will mention potential interactions with other medications and the recommended dose,” Joaquin Villegas, MD, a family medicine physician with UTHealth Houston.

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“For example, decongestants like pseudoephedrine can cause palpitations or increase blood pressure,” he said. “Antihistamines like diphenhydramine can affect older patients and cause confusion and even urinary retention.”

Even medications like acetaminophen can be deadly if you consume too much of it. Acetaminophen is processed by the liver, so overuse of it can lead to liver damage and even lead to severe reactions.

If you have any questions, talk to a doctor or the pharmacist you’re picking a medication up from before taking it, Villegas said.

Easing Symptoms Without Cold Medicine

There are many ways to alleviate mild cold-like symptoms without medication.

“I always recommend plenty of fluids and rest to all my patients since dehydration can worsen symptoms,” said Villegas. “But there are home remedies that can help with certain symptoms.”

For a sore throat, he recommends people gargle with salt water, as well as sip hot tea, suck on ice chips, and eat a spoonful of honey.

“Keep in mind, do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age,” Villegas clarified.

For those experiencing nasal congestion, he recommends steam baths or hot showers to clear nasal passages. If hot showers are too difficult to bear, he suggests a cool-mist humidifier to help loosen congestion.

Ascher added the following recommendations for people with mild cold symptoms:

  • Hot tea with honey and lemon
  • Hot soup
  • Plenty of water to help flush out the toxins
  • Rest
  • Fruits/veggies for nutrients and antioxidants

He noted that while many people may reach for vitamin C or zinc when they’re beginning to feel sick, research indicates it probably won’t help too much.

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People who aren’t just trying to alleviate symptoms, but instead trying to prevent colds altogether, may also want to consider daily garlic consumption, he said.

Knowing When to Stay Home

When you’re not sure whether or not you’re sick, the safest bet is, of course, to stay home.

“We have learned that any symptom that is different than you normally feel can be a sign of illness—flu, COVID-19, other viruses,” Ascher said. “We also know that if someone has a virus/non-severe illness, you risk infecting someone else who may have close contact with someone vulnerable, where a virus, flu, or COVID, could be detrimental to their health.”

If you are feverish, have a cough, are sneezing, or feel as though you are at risk of spreading germs, it is best to stay away from other people.

If you are feeling ill, take proper precautions before going to an event—take at-home tests, wear a mask, and constantly wash your hands to prevent spreading germs to those around you,” Ascher added.

If there is any question if you should go to the event, chances are you should sit it out to prevent infecting someone else.

When You Should Take Cold Medication

If your symptoms don’t clear up with home remedies, it may be time to consider taking cold medicine.

According to Ascher, these are signs it’s appropriate to take medication:

  • Fevers/chills/night sweats  
  • Body aches
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Cough that keeps you up at night or causes shortness of breath
  • Sneezing that causes headaches or facial pressure
  • Illness that gets worse over a few days
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It’s also important to recognize when cold medications aren’t enough, and further actions are needed to prioritize your well-being.

“Over-the-counter medications are great to help relieve symptoms,” Villegas said, “but if you start developing a fever that does not improve with medications, or shortness of breath that is not improving, do not hesitate to go to your doctor or an urgent care for evaluation.”


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