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The typical pharmacy cold remedy section has over two hundred separate products. There are, however, only five different classes and some of these only have one product per class. Consequently, there are very few true choices among the array of products in that section.

There are products for fever (antipyretics), pain (analgesics), and inflammation (anti-inflamatories). Tylenol (acetaminophen) will help with pain and fever; Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) will help with all three. There are other less commonly used over the counter non-steroidal pain relievers such as Aleve, which also help with all three.

There are antihistamines, which are products that block the action of histamine released in an allergic reaction. Although there are many different antihistamines sold, there are only three that are in the majority of products: diphenhydramine (Benadryl), brompheniramine (Dimetane) and chlorpheiramine (Triaminic).

There are decongestants, which reduce nasal swelling and congestion. As mentioned on the pseudoephedrine page, there is really only one decongestant (pseudoephedrine, Sudafed) that is found in most over-the-counter products.

There is only one expectorant that is in most products: guaifenesin. Robitussin is the most common example of an expectorant.

Finally, there is dextromethorphan, which is a cough suppressant. Like pseudoephedrine and guaifenesin, it is by far the major product in its class.

Combining products within these five classes, different companies can deliver an amazing and overwhelming display of products to the pharmacy shelves. The choices, however, need not be undecipherable:

Cough Either suppressant (dextromethorphan) expectorant (guaifenesin) or both
Colds Pseudoephedrine
Allergy Antihistamine
Flu Antipyretic/analgesic plus pseudoephedrine and/or dextromethorphan
Cough and cold Pseudoephedrine and dextromethorphan
Cold and allergy Pseudoephedrine and antihistamine
Maximum strength Everything


November 2001