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The common cold, an acute upper respiratory tract infection of viral origin, is among the most widespread ailments in the world. Although the general public usually relies on over-the-counter (OTC) medication(s) to treat cough/cold symptoms, reliable guidance is needed to help select the appropriate OTC medication for each individual. Consumers may be confused by the wide variety of products available, containing ≥ 1 active pharmaceutical ingredient. Health care professionals are in a position to help people identify the most bothersome symptom(s), evaluate underlying medical conditions and medications, and recommend the most appropriate OTC active ingredient(s) for treatment. Patients should be educated about available OTC medications to manage cough/cold symptoms and the importance of learning to read the package labeling for appropriate dosing and administration. In addition, potentially serious causes of cough/cold symptoms (eg, influenza, asthma, bronchitis) or underlying medical conditions that put the individual at increased risk for complications should be ruled out when symptoms do not resolve within a typical cold timeline. This review article discusses the active ingredients found in OTC medications and the clinical evidence supporting their use. The need to educate health care professionals and patients on the safe and effective use of OTC medications is addressed, and we offer a guide for the management of symptoms that appear during the timeline of a typical common cold.


Patricia Jackson Allen, Steven Simenson. Management of common cold symptoms with over-the-counter medications: clearing the confusion. Postgraduate medicine. 2013 Jan;125(1):73-81

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PMID: 23391673

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