HomeHealthWhat's in your cold medication?

What’s in your cold medication?

The temptation when cold and flu hits is to reach out for the drugs to keep us going, but before you pop a pill you should probably know what’s actually in there.

First up, it’s true, there is no cure for the common cold, so with any cold and flu tablets all you are doing is treating the symptoms. But that’s okay, no point feeling miserable if a couple of tablets could make you feel even a little bit better.

Here’s a guide to some of the ingredients in cold and flu medication.


Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant and dries up your runny nose by tightening up the blood vessels.

It’s also a stimulant, which is why they love making the street drug speed out of it and why its supply is controlled.

These days, most over-the-counter or pharmacy-level medicines don’t contain too much pseudoephedrine. However, people with heart problems should probably avoid it and it should not be given to children aged under six.

Pseudoephedrine doesn’t actually cure a runny nose, and when it wears off your nose just goes back to being runny, and can sometimes be even worse.

Perhaps the most popular brand in Australia is Sudafed.


Phenylephrine is pseudoephedrine’s poorer cousin. It’s also a decongestant, but not as effective.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen

These two are pain relievers but are useful for separate symptoms

Paracetamol can help reduce fever or high temperatures and ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory so can help with sore throats and joint pain.

While these are common supermarket-level drugs, don’t go too hard. Like any drug, they can pose an overdose risk.

Extra-strong paracetamol is only available at chemists or by prescription.

Nasal sprays, drops or rinses

Some nasal sprays are little more than saline to flush your sinuses out, but some contain some of the decongestants mentioned above or other ingredients that could be an allergy reaction risk such as eucalyptus oil or menthol.

Check the label clearly before sticking it into your nose. Good advice for life, really.


Once again, check the label for allergy risks before you indulge.

And there is little evidence that lozenges provide anything more than very brief relief from symptoms.

You may actually be doing more harm than good in the long term. The sugar levels required to cover up the taste of the active ingredient in some lozenges is astronomical and sucking on them all day will be bad for your teeth.

Cough medicines

Science is not kind to cough medicines.

According to Webmd.com: “We’ve never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with cough,” says American Lung Association senior scientific adviser Norman Edelman.

“People are so convinced that they should work that they buy them anyway.” 

So, there you go, spend your money if you think it’s doing you good, but it probably isn’t.

The Therapeutic Good Administration also advises cough medicines should not be given to children under six years.

Combination cough and cold medications

Science also doesn’t like these, but is a bit more ambivalent. According to the government website HealthDirect: “Tt’s important to know there is not enough evidence showing they work well, particularly in children.”

If you are going to use combination cough and cold medications, check the ingredients so you don’t double up your dosage with something else you have eaten earlier in the day. 


These can only be prescribed by a doctor. They are useless against cold and flu viruses but may be prescribed for throat infections or whooping cough. 


Also a prescription-only drug, usually for a case of the actual flu – not just a nasty cold – or COVID-19. 

They won’t cure you but should cut down the time you are ill, relieve some symptoms and reduce the potential for serious complications.

Do you have a tried and trusted cold remedy? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Flu numbers are surging. Have you become complacent?

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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