Cold Medicine Ingredients and Side Effects

Cold Medicine Ingredients and Side Effects

Cold Medicine is full of weird ingredients that can cause many different side effects.

Every winter, the majority of us catch at least a cold or two, if not something worse, like the flu or pneumonia. It is just the way of the world. Typically when we catch one of these, we reach for over the counter cold medicine to help us deal with the symptoms and get through our day. In fact, in 2011, we spent over $4 BILLION dollars on cough and cold medications.

However, as innocuous as over the counter cold medicines seem to be, they are still full of drugs and chemicals. So, this winter, when I felt myself coming down with a cold, instead of just taking the nearest over the counter cold medicine, I decided to research them a bit to see what there ingredients were and what they could be doing to my body.

The first thing I did was pull out some of the cold medicines we had lying around the house already to look at their ingredients lists. When I looked at the ingredients on the boxes and bottles, I could hardly pronounce any of them (which is usually a bad sign). I saw things like antihistamines, pseudoephedrine, dextromethorphan and acetaminophen. I had no idea what those things actually were, so I started doing some research on them. Here is what I found out.


Histamine is an important body chemical that is responsible for all of the congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and itching that you suffer with an allergic attack or an infection. So, antihistamines are drugs that try to block the action of histamines in the body to prevent or reduce the severity of all of the symptoms they produce.

However, along with blocking histamines, antihistamines also have side effects, such as: dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue and drowsiness. More severe side effects can include decreased coordination, blurred vision  and changes in blood pressure.


A cough suppressant found in many cold medications, Dextromethorphan helps break up mucus in the sinuses and reduce coughing. However, it also has the following side effects: drowsiness, nausea, confusion, headache and dizziness. More severe side effects include: hallucination, difficulty breathing and seizures.


Pseudoephedrine is a nasal and sinus decongestant that shrinks swollen mucus membranes. It is also a stimulant, which can cause side effects like: insomnia, nervousness, excitability, dizziness and anxiety. The more rare and severe side effects are heart palpitations and tachycardia.


A widely-used pain and fever reducer, Acetaminophen (also known as Paracetamol), is often used in cold medication. When used safely in low dosages, Acetaminophen has very few side effects. For that reason, it is often one of the main ingredients in pain and cold medications for children.

However, overuse of Acetaminophen is very dangerous. Acetaminophen hepatotoxicity is, by far, the most common cause of acute liver failure in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Also, because Acetaminophen is processed by the liver, taking it in combination with alcohol can be very dangerous.

Cold Medicines and Adults

Cold medicines won’t cure a cold. They only help prevent some of the symptoms. There is no cure for the common cold.

However, most experts agree that cold medicines used in the proper dosages, targeting specific symptoms, and used only for a few days can provide some relief and is generally safe. However, if medicines are over-used, mixed with other drugs or taken by at risk groups (such as those with Diabetes), they can be harmful. Finally, the benefit of cold medicines decreases the longer it is taken. If your cold lasts more than a week, it is recommended that you go see your Doctor.

Cold Medicines and Young Children

While cold medicine use by adults may provide some relief and be safe most of the time, recent research has shown that, for children under the age of 6, over the counter cold medications are usually ineffective, can actually make symptoms worse and be harmful to the child. For example, a cough and cold medication containing an antihistamine has a sedating effect that could potentially worsen a condition in which a small child has trouble breathing. Also, because parents don’t like to see their children suffer, they typically give them multiple medications (for example, a pain medication and a cough medication), which may both contain the same ingredient, thus unintentionally overdosing their children.


Based on all the research I conducted, over the counter cold medications seem to provide some actual relief and be relatively safe with proper use in adults and older children. However, there is always a danger that:

  1. They will interact with another drug you may be taking, so always consult your physician first before taking one, OR
  2. You will be the one person out of a large number that has a severe side effect to the medication.

So, like most things, it comes down to the rule that we try to follow: If it is not naturally-occurring, try not to put it in or on your body.

When I caught a cold this winter, I did use small doses of over the counter medication at night to help me sleep, but I did not take any during the day. As soon as I felt that I could sleep through the night without taking medication, I stopped taking it. I also researched and found a few natural cold remedies that were very helpful in both treating my cold symptoms and reducing the length of my cold. I will write about them soon.

Photo credit: anitakhart on Flickr.

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