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April 15, 2014

Coughs and Colds : What Medications Should You Take?

The cold and cough remedy aisle at your local drugstore can be somewhat baffling. Why so many products?  Are they all the same? Here is some information to help ease your confusion and your symptoms.

When you have a cold, start by identifying your symptoms. Do you have a runny nose, nasal congestion, a cough, a headache or all of the above? Ask your pharmacist to help you evaluate your signs and symptoms and determine the type of medicine you need. Speaking with your pharmacist will save you time and ensure you get the product or products best suited to your condition.

How to read the labels

To make things easier for consumers, drug manufacturers all use the same, non-official system of letters: A, D, DM and E, alone or combined. Each letter corresponds to the property of the medicine or the ingredients it contains to help you quickly identify the product you need. Here is what each letter means.

  • A means the product contains acetaminophen to relieve pain and fever. Not many products currently bear this letter, but this number is expected to increase.
  • D indicates a formula with a decongestant to clear nasal passages and help you breathe easier. Some decongestants are not recommended for certain people, including those with high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • DM means the medicine contains dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant to reduce or stop a dry cough associated with a cold or flu. A dry cough is one that does not produce mucus. A word of caution: these products may not be suitable for people taking certain types of prescription prescription medications.
  • E indicates a product formulated with an expectorant, usually guaifenesin. It is useful for people who have a “wet” cough, in other words a mucus-producing cough. The effectiveness of these products has yet to be established, and nothing indicates that they work any better than simply increasing your fluid intake.

So if a label says DM-D, DM-E, D-E, DMD-E or D-E-A, it means it contains a combination of these ingredients. Single-ingredient formulas are still preferable, since they target only the symptoms you actually have, rather than those you do not or no longer have.

Always make sure the medicine you choose is right for you by asking your pharmacist for advice.

What About Natural Health Products?

Taking Echinacea at the first sign of illness may help relieve symptoms and reduce the length of a cold. You should not take it for more than three consecutive months. As for children, give them products formulated for their age group, since these contain lower doses. Remember that Echinacea can interact with other drugs. In rare cases, it can also cause an allergic reaction. Be careful if you have a plant allergy, particularly to ragweed. If you take medication, especially drugs to lower your immune function, talk to your pharmacist before taking Echinacea to make sure it is right for you.

Taken from Guide pratique de la pharmacie, Protégez-Vous, 2009 (In French only)

To learn more:

Vrai ou faux: Les produits contre le rhume et la toux sont déconseillés aux enfants, Protégez-Vous, October 2012 (In French only)
Flu: A Serious Infection, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux du Québec.

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