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Got a cold? Relieve yourself of the symptoms

You can't cure it, but the pharmacist can help you find medications to soothe that runny nose and hacking cough.

By FRAN GOLDEN, Associated Press
Published March 20, 2007


BOSTON

Stuck in the drugstore aisle trying to select a cold remedy? Ask the pharmacist.

According to Jan Engle, past president of the American Pharmacists Association, that's the best thing consumers seeking cold remedies can do.

Engle, who is also a clinical professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said too few consumers read labels carefully enough to figure out what will help them most.

"You can't cure the cold," Engle said, "but you can have medications to relieve the symptoms." Just don't "treat three things if you only have one."

And if you buy multiple products - such as a decongestant designed to clear your stuffy nose and a syrup to relieve your cough - read the labels to make sure you are not doubling up on ingredients, which in some cases can be dangerous, Engle noted.

Consumers also need to recognize that colds have to run their course.

"I think the biggest mistake is they're looking for something that will decrease the severity and length of their illness, and the answer to that is there isn't anything," said Dr. Ramon Parrish, a family medicine physician at the Medical College of Georgia Health System in Augusta, Ga.

Despite the vast array of drugstore products, most cold remedies contain these basic ingredients:

ANTIHISTAMINES: For sneezing, itchy eyes, runny noses. These can make you drowsy. If you need to be alert, look for a nondrowsy formula.

DECONGESTANTS: Designed to relieve stuffy noses. These come in pills and sprays, but the experts warn that people should use them short-term only. Be aware that the popular decongestant pseudoephedrine is now federally regulated, because it can also be used to make methamphetamine. Identification is now required to buy pseudoephedrine products. Pseudoephedrine can keep you awake, so be careful about taking it near bedtime.

COUGH MEDICINE: The primary ingredients in over-the-counter cough medicine are guaifenesin and dextromethorphan. Guaifenesin, an expectorant, is supposed to thin mucus and help you cough it up when you have a productive cough.

Dextromethorphan (DM), found in many cough syrups and lozenges, is a suppressant or antitussive. It is supposed to help stop dry, hacking coughs that are non-productive.

Engle cited a report from the American College of Chest Physicians, known as the ACCP, that stated "neither of these products have been studied sufficiently to say for sure that they work."

There are alternatives, however.

Some clinicians recommend drinking at least 8 ounces of water and breathing humidified air to loosen mucus, Engle said.

The ACCP report recommends a combination of the antihistamine brompheniramine and the decongestant pseudoephedrine to treat acute coughs associated with common colds. The combination of the two drugs is found in some over-the-counter remedies.

Note that some cough medicines, including NyQuil, contain alcohol, which can also make you sleepy.

Finally, if you feel that your cough is being caused by a tickle in your throat, try a lozenge that contains benzocaine and menthol, which help numb the throat.

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin can all reduce fever and aches associated with colds and flu.