An Update on Echinacea: If It Doesn't Help, How Do New Cold Medicines Stack Up?


Dont blame your stuffy head if you cant find your usual decongestant on drugstore shelves. Cold and allergy medications like Sudafed and Claritin-D have been pushed behind the counter because of their pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the illegal street drug methamphetamine. And just asking for your favorite remedy may not be enough. In some states, you might need to show ID and sign a form saying how much youre buying. And you may not be allowed to buy as much as you want. As a result, drug companies have launched on-the-shelf decongestants without pseudoephedrine. But do they work as well as the old standbys? We checked with William Soller, PhD, executive director of the Center for Consumer Self Care at University of California, San Francisco. His advice:

Try the new stuff
Most of these remedies contain phenylephrine (look for “PE” on the label), a close cousin of pseudoephedrine that isnt used to make meth. It wont last as long as pseudoephedrine—you may need to take it every 4 hours—but Soller says most people wont notice a difference. People at risk of heart problems should check with their doctor before using either medicine.

Dont forget nasal sprays
Neo-Synephrine 4-hour (which has phenylephrine) and Afrin (with longer-lasting oxymetazoline) will clear your stuffy nose in minutes. Soller says theyre safe for the 3 days or so that cold symptoms peak. But longer use can lead to rebound congestion, so dont overdo it.

Be careful with all-in-ones
Remedies that treat congestion, fever, pain, cough, and allergies (like Comtrex) may seem like wonder drugs, but you might not need so much medicine. Its best to match your medicines to your symptoms, Soller says. If you dont have a cough, why take cough medicine? Plus, by alleviating your congestion, a decongestant may help relieve other symptoms.

  • Drug-free alternatives might help
  • The number of options can make your head spin, but most wont unstuff your noggin, Soller says. Your best bet may be saline nasal washes like Ocean or Salinex, which can clear blocked passages and help reduce swelling that makes sinuses ache. (Want to make your own rinse? Mix 1 teaspoon of table salt in a pint of water.) Menthol sprays and rubs wont drain your sinuses or clear your nose, Soller adds, but their cool, numbing sensation will make you feel better. Plus, you can use them as much like. Just remember to be respectful of anyone downwind.
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