Should you take over-the-counter meds if you have a cold or the flu?

“With Mucinex All in One, you’ve got unbeatable relief from your worst cold and flu symptoms,” says the TV ad.

If you don’t need a fever and pain reducer and a cough suppressant and an expectorant and a nasal decongestant, you’re exposing yourself to drugs—and side effects—you may not need if you take a combination cold-and-flu formula like Mucinex All in One.

The side effects

Cough suppressants and expectorants (which thin mucus and make it easier to cough) can cause dizziness. Decongestants can raise blood pressure and may cause restlessness and insomnia. Fever and pain reducing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin can increase the risk of stomach ulcers over the long term.

Then there’s acetaminophen (Tylenol). Taking more than 3,000 milligrams a day over the long term can damage your liver. And acetaminophen is in so many cough, cold, allergy, pain, and sleep medications that it’s easy to end up taking more than you realize.

One bit of good news

If you’re steering clear of ibuprofen because of news reports last March warning that it can worsen Covid-19, relax.

Those warnings spread when a letter to a medical journal suggested that ibuprofen may increase the number of receptors that the virus binds to on cells.

Since then, studies have reported no worse outcomes in Covid patients who take ibuprofen. And the World Health Organization quickly retracted its initial warning about using the drug for Covid symptoms.

The bottom line

Take cold and flu medicines when you need them, but don’t overdo it. And don’t give them to children under the age of six.

The information in this post first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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