Cold medicine has no effect

With cold and flu season right around the corner, it’s time to take a look at what’s in your medicine cabinet and you may need to get rid of any boxes and jars that aren’t working this year.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently concluded that decongestants, common in many over-the-counter cold medicines, are not effective at relieving nasal congestion.

This ingredient, phenylephrine, is supposed to reduce swelling of blood vessels in the nasal passages, making breathing easier. But when taken orally, “it’s essentially inactivated before it enters the bloodstream,” said Stefanie Ferreri, a professor of pharmacy at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy. “When taken orally, it’s almost like a placebo, a sugar pill.”

Experts stress that phenylephrine, which has been marketed for decades, is not dangerous and remains effective when used as a nasal spray or eye drops to dilate the eyes.

But Ferreri says if the pill you buy doesn’t effectively relieve a stuffy nose, it could take a toll on your wallet. Products containing phenylephrine — including those sold by big brands like Tylenol, Advil, Sudafed and Mucinex — generated nearly $1.8 billion in sales in 2021, according to data provided by the advisory group.

Additionally, taking some medications that don’t help symptoms “may delay attention to more serious problems,” Ferreri said.

What products contain phenylephrine?

Common decongestants that are ineffective

These medicines may help relieve a headache or sore throat, but they will not relieve a stuffy nose.

  1. Advil Sinus Congestion and Pain
  2. Tylenol cold + severe congestion in head
  3. Mucinex Sinus-Max for severe congestion and pain relief
  4. Benadryl allergy plus congestion
  5. DayQuil Cold + Flu
  6. Sudafy PE
  7. Theraflu relieves severe colds during the day
  8. Vickers Sinex Serious

This list is not exhaustive. Phenylephrine is found in a variety of over-the-counter oral products.

Phenylephrine, sometimes called PE on packaging, is sold alone but often appears in combination products that contain ingredients designed to eliminate a variety of symptoms that accompany congestion: sore throats, fevers, body aches, and more.

For this reason, you shouldn’t throw away anything that contains phenylephrine, says Sarah Westerberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Pharmacy. That box of cold and flu medicine may help relieve your other symptoms, but it won’t relieve your stuffy nose.

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