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Safe Use of Cough and Cold Medicines

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Nov 5, 2023.

What do I need to know about cough and cold medicines?

Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines contain 1 or more ingredients used to decrease cough and cold symptoms. OTC cough medicine may contain an antitussive, expectorant, or both. Antitussives decrease cough by blocking your cough reflex. Expectorants thin your mucus to help clear it from your airway. Cold medicines may have any combination of a cough medicine, antihistamine, decongestant, and pain medicine. Antihistamines may help reduce runny nose and sneezing. Decongestants may help to reduce nasal congestion (stuffiness). Pain medicines also help to decrease a fever.

Who should not take OTC cough and cold medicines?

People with certain medical conditions should talk to their healthcare provider before taking OTC cough or cold medicines. Examples include high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or liver disease. Decongestants, antihistamines, and medicines high in sodium (salt) can raise blood pressure. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your healthcare provider if you can take these medicines.

How do I safely take OTC cough and cold medicines?

  • Read the directions on the label to learn how much medicine you should take and how often to take it. Do not take more than the recommended amount. Choose medicine that decreases the symptoms you have.
  • Do not combine cough and cold medicines together or with pain medicine. Different cold medicines may contain the same ingredient. For example, cold medicines may contain acetaminophen. When you take more than one type of medicine, you may take too much of the same ingredient.
  • Do not combine cough and cold medicines with prescription medicines unless your healthcare provider says it is okay. When you take these medicines together they may not work correctly. It may also increase your child's risk for side effects.
  • Do not drink alcohol while you are taking cold medicines that make your drowsy. Alcohol can make the drowsiness worse.

What do I need to know about OTC cough and cold medicine overdose?

An overdose means you have taken too much cough and cold medicine. An overdose can become life-threatening. You may have any of the following if you have had an overdose of OTC cough and cold medicine:

  • Blurred vision, dilated pupils, or severe headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or hallucinations
  • Slurred speech, trouble thinking, or unusual behavior
  • A fast heartbeat, irregular heartbeat, or trouble breathing
  • Seizures, loss of consciousness, or not waking up

What should I do if I think I took too much OTC cough and cold medicine?

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 immediately.

Call 911 or have someone else call if:

  • You have a seizure.
  • You have hallucinations.
  • You have trouble breathing.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have a fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • You have anxiety, irritability, restlessness, slurred speech, or trouble thinking.
  • You have nausea, or you are vomiting.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a severe sore throat with a fever, headache, rash, nausea, or vomiting.
  • You have a fever that lasts longer than 3 days.
  • You have a cough that lasts longer than 1 week.
  • You have wheezing when you cough or breathe.
  • You have blurred vision or dilated pupils.
  • You have diarrhea or constipation.
  • You have a headache that does not go away.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© Copyright Merative 2023 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.