3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Cold and Flu Meds

tissue box, thermometer, and flu medication
Katie Mui
Katie Mui is on the Research Team at GoodRx.
Posted on

By now, you’ve probably heard that this year’s flu season is getting pretty bad (or “moderately severe”, as the CDC puts it), with widespread flu activity all across the U.S. We believe prevention is the best medicine, but certain strains, like last year’s H3N2 virus, are more resistant to the flu shot.

So if you find yourself feeling feverish and with chills, congestion, runny nose, or body aches (among other common cold and flu symptoms), you might be tempted to head to your local drugstore. But with over 300 products on the shelf in the typical cold and flu aisle (we counted), it’s easy to feel pretty overwhelmed—especially if you’re not feeling quite like yourself. Luckily, we’re here to help you sort through the confusion and pick the best over-the-counter cold and flu meds for you.

1. You’re getting duped by marketing

There are over 300 cold and flu products in the average drugstore, but what you probably don’t know is that they’re really just a handful of combinations of four basic types of ingredients: decongestants, pain and fever reducers, cough suppressants, and expectorants (mucus thinners). There are so many options because each brand (like Robitussin or Vicks) has its own version of almost every combination, plus many combinations come in more than one form (like liquid, dissolving tablets, and “liquicaps”). Some of this is good—for example, it’s nice to have a liquid option if you don’t like taking pills–but a lot of it is simply driven by marketing.

2. You’re spending too much on brand names

According to a 2014 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, drugstore shoppers spend an extra $44 billion a year on brand-name products, including over-the-counter medications and other health items. Pharmacists, on the other hand, are 90% more likely to buy generics, probably because they know how to hunt them down on store shelves and know that they’re just as effective. But it’s hard for most people to distinguish between pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine or dextromethorphan and doxylamine in order to pick a generic or store brand with the active ingredients they need.

3. You’re probably taking more medicine than necessary

People often take combination-ingredient cold and flu medicines like NyQuil or Tylenol Cold Daytime. You’ve probably seen TV commercials for these brands so they’re easy to recognize on the shelf, and you know they’ll probably cover whatever your symptoms are. But these combo products often have more ingredients than you need to treat the symptoms you actually have, which puts you at greater risk for side effects, drug interactions, and overdose. Overdose is especially risky with products that contain acetaminophen because going even just a little bit over the daily limit of acetaminophen can put your liver at risk and even cause death. Read our previous post on how to avoid taking too much acetaminophen or Tylenol.

So how do I find what’s right for me?

If you’re looking to treat the symptoms of a developing cold and flu early without having to visit the doctor’s office, our friends at Iodine have just the thing. Their cold & flu tool can help you save time, money, and extra stress on your body. Just select your symptoms, and it’ll narrow down all the options to products that treat the symptoms you actually have. You can compare them side by side and take the list with you to the pharmacy. Get in, get out, go home and rest.

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