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The Truth About Over-the-Counter Cold and Flu Medicines

By Chris D. Meletis, N.D.

When you have a cold or flu, you probably reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) medication. But what are these medicationsreally doing to your health in the long run?

Managing Mucus

It is very important to lessen and eliminate mucus not only to feel better, but to lessen the risk of what is called a secondary bacterial infection, after having a viral illness like a cold or flu.  TheOTC drug ingredientguaifenesinis designed to break down mucus. It is essential to remember that mucus is not just annoying—it’s a breeding ground for infection. Our bodies are really glorified petri dishes. We are warm and moist and excess mucus is food for bacteria to thrive.

Prolonged use of guaifenesin usefor more than a few days may increasekidney stone risk. Other side effects include diarrhea, dizziness and nausea. I find that my patients that use guaifenesin generally tolerate it well and report that when used for 7 to 10 days it works well.

While guaifenesinhelps the body expel mucus, another option is the use of antihistamines dry up nasal mucus. It should be noted that antihistamines can cause fatigue and also urine retention in males specifically that have enlarged prostates. The question is: do guaifenesin or antihistamines actually work?Some studies found these agentsreduce cough, others found they don’t.1 I personally have found them helpful when used properly for my patients.

According to researchers, “There is no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough.”1

Other OTC Medicines

Dextromorphan—a common OTC ingredient—is good at cough control. Yet, it can cause drowsiness, nausea and dizziness. Combining dextromorphan with high doses of antihistamines or decongestants can damage the liver.   So, the key is to use the smallest dose needed and use it for a short period of time as possible.  Also one should never drink alcohol when taking cold medicines.

Cough drops are another option. But widely available menthol-containing cough dropscontainbacteria’s best friend—sugar—which lowers immunity and the sugar feeds bacteria much like mucus does.  Beware of artificial sweeteners with toxic effects such as aspartame or sucralose.2-3I personally like cough drops that are sweetened with xylitol or stevia.

To reduce a fever, you’ve probably also reached for acetaminophen (Tylenol®), aspirin or NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen.These OTC drugs are tough on the liver and gastrointestinal tract.And liver failure risk increases if you have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a common and often symptomless condition.4So, if a person has a history of fatty liver, liver disease or elevated liver enzymes, one should avoid acetaminophen specifically.  Likewise, if a person has a history of ulcers or heart burn, avoiding aspirin and NSAIDs is important as these OTC medicines can damage the stomach and esophagus severely.

Natural Ways To Beat A Cold or Flu

Your best bets? Keep your immune system strong with zinc, vitamin C and therapeutic mushrooms. Andtake the supplement N-acetyl cysteine to break up mucus.

Drink lots of pure, filtered water, get plenty of sleep, and avoid sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Wash your hands often and when people are around you,avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth unless you thoroughly wash your hands first.


1. Smith SM, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;8:CD001831.

2. Soffritti M, et al. Am J Ind Med. 2014 Apr;57(4):383-97.

3.Schiffman SS and Rother KI. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2013;16(7):399-451.

4. Michaut A, et al. Liver Int. 2014 Feb 28. [Epub ahead of print.]



Health Tips On the Go!

Improve Posture

  • 1.Avoid slouching. Be aware of your posture as you walk, sit, and drive, keep shoulders squared and head pulled back and up.

  • 2.Imagine a thread pulling the top of your head toward the ceiling. Visualization can help improve your sense of position.

  • 3.If your job requires you to sit for long periods, take frequent breaks to stand, stretch and shake it out.

  • 4.Maintain a strong core to help support proper posture. Add core-training exercises to your daily routine.

  • 5.A firm mattress and ergonomic pillow help achieve proper back support while you sleep, so you'll stand straighter in the a.m.

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