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Treating a Cold: Finding the Cold Product for You

Treating a Cold: Finding the Cold Product for You

So you have a cold. You did the best you could with winter: you got enough sleep and exercise, ate properly, cleaned meticulously, wore your protective mask, and washed your hands regularly. But you still caught a cold -- it happens. No one is an island, and when you're around people all day at work, school, or even home there's a good chance you'll be exposed to some germs. That's why we've put together a guide to how you can ease the symptoms of your cold. Unfortunately, being a virus, a cold has to run its course, but you can take steps to reduce its impact on your day.

Cold Products Medication

Dealing With Symptoms

Healthy people are all alike; each cold is unhappy in its own way. You're familiar with the symptoms of the common cold, but they might impact you in varying degrees. That's why we're breaking the cold down by symptoms to help you find the right products for what ails you most.

Stuffy Nose

Nasal congestion is one of the most common symptoms there is, and not just for cold sufferers. Anyone who has allergies knows what it's like to have a stuffy or runny nose, excessive mucus production, or swollen nasal lining. You're going to want a decongestant.

Decongestants generally work by constricting blood vessels, which prevents liquid from leaving the blood vessels and entering the nose, throat, and sinus linings. This decreases mucus production as well as inflammation of the nasal membranes. Common decongestants include pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, or oxymetazoline. You'll usually find decongestants in two types:

  • Pills & Syrups: If you've ever seen a medicine's name followed by the letter "D," you've seen a medicine that includes a decongestant.
  • Nasal Sprays: As topical decongestants, nasal sprays work more quickly, but can only be used for short periods of time, usually 2-3 days.

Cold Medicine Symptoms Sneezing

Runny Nose, Watery Eyes, and Sneezing

These are the highly visual symptoms that make you feel particularly unappealing, the ones that feel like they're shouting to the world that you've got a cold. Not to mention that sneezing is both annoying and very capable of spreading the germs that got you sick. These symptoms are the result of histamines, molecules in your body that are involved in too many processes to list here. Most relevantly, they're part of your immune response. To deal with these overachievers, you'll need an antihistamine.

Antihistamines work to block histamines from binding to receptors that create an allergic reaction. These medications often include diphenhydramine or chlorphenamine, and can also treat allergies. They may have some inconvenient side effects: some create drowsiness, or cause dryness in the eyes, nose, and mouth. Many newer antihistamines don't cause drowsiness, though, so if you need to get through a work or school day, make sure you look for a non-drowsy one.


A doctor will generally suggest staying home when sick, but due to the demands of work or school (or, let's be honest, the movies opening during the holiday season), that's not always feasible. Coughing is uncomfortable, and not only announces your sickness to everyone but also spreads it to them. In the right conditions, it's a public health hazard. Here's what you'll need:

  • Medical Face Mask: Seriously, wear one of these. Your coworkers and fellow travelers will thank you.
  • Cough Suppressants: Antitussives are substances like dextromethorphan that block the coughing reflex. If you've seen a medicine ending in the letters "DM," it contains this.
  • Expectorants: These often contain guaifenesen and are also known as mucolytics. They work to break up the congestion in your chest and airways by thinning the mucus. That way, coughing will loosen and remove the phlegm. Sorry, we know it's gross, but you're sick anyway. Don't forget to drink lots of water with these -- water will help thin the congestion.

Cold Medicine Flu-Like Symptoms Fever Ache Sore Throat

Flu-like Symptoms: Fever, Aches, and Sore Throat

Be careful with these symptoms: if you're developing the flu, that's another article and your illness is going to be markedly more unpleasant than a cold. But less severe versions of these symptoms are not uncommon in colds. Over-the-counter analgesics are usually an appropriate response.

Analgesics are medications that treat pain and often inflammation, and come in many forms, organized by their mechanisms of action. Some are much more intense than others, but you likely have over-the-counter ones in your home to treat minor issues like headaches. Some key options:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: NSAIDs include common drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin, and they work to reduce pain and inflammation, decrease fever, and even prevent blood clots. They inhibit the action of certain enzymes which cause inflammation or clot blood.
  • Paracematol: More commonly known as acetaminophen, this medication reduces pain and fever, but does not have anti-inflammatory properties. Its action is not yet entirely understood, but appears to block some of the functions of the same enzymes that NSAIDs affect.

You may have noticed by following some of those product links that many cold products cover multiple areas we've outlined. Sometimes you may want a cold medicine that deals with multiple symptoms, and sometimes you may want something more targeted. The important thing is that you have an idea of what these diverse, often unpronounceable medications do and what's going to be most effective for the symptoms you have.

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