The best cold medicine offers relief for your worst symptom without bogging you down in side-effects. To find out which drugs do this best, we talked to doctors and pharmacists about how colds affect the body and how different drugs help. Their recommendations were unanimous: Go after the symptom that’s ailing you most, rather than seeking relief from an underpowered multi-symptom formula.
How We Chose the Best Cold Medicine
Initially, we compiled a list of more than 450 tablets, liquids, capsules, and sprays from the websites of CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Rite Aid. But as we researched their active ingredients, we realized that the vast majority of over-the-counter cold meds are some combination of the same few drugs. So we turned to experts — two doctors and two pharmacists — to help us understand which ones are most effective, which should be taken with caution, and whether there’s any real difference between brand names and generic formulas.
Our experts confirmed what we’d always suspected: There’s really no difference except for price (generic is usually cheaper). The FDA has strict rules governing the manufacture of over-the-counter meds, so despite the profusion of boxes, bottles and packets in the cold aisle, you’ll find the same handful of active ingredients, in the same amounts, in all of them — no matter what the price.
Certain symptoms, such as cough, have only one over-the-counter drug generally regarded to be effective. But others, such as sinus pressure, have more. In those cases, we deferred to the feedback we got from our four experts. Their answers reinforced some of our assumptions, but surprised us in other ways.
When your cold is bad enough to require treatment, it can be tempting to pop a multi-symptom formula designed to combat all the “typical” discomforts, whether you have them or not. But our experts actually recommended targeting only your worst symptom or symptoms — the ones that are making it impossible to get through the day.
“It’s best to minimize the medications you take to treat cold symptoms. Use the smallest amount for the shortest time frame possible.”
It’s best to stay consistent with the doctrine of “fewer drugs is better,” because certain ingredients can actually work against your recovery by dehydrating you further. There’s no extra benefit to a multi-symptom med if you don’t need relief from all its listed symptoms.
And even if you are suffering from multiple symptoms, multisymptom formulas aren’t the solution they seem to be. Multisymptom cold medicines are basically the same as taking a regular strength Tylenol (acetaminophen) with a light dose of cough suppressant and either a nasal decongestant or antihistamine (in the case of the nighttime formula). For example, DayQuil only contains a third of the cough suppressant you’d get from one Mucinex DM. So if you’re really suffering from the symptoms they target, you’re probably better off with a full dose from one of the other products on this list.
The Best Cold Medicine
- Advil –Best for Fever, Aches, and Sore Throat
- Tylenol –Runner-Up for Fever, Aches, and Sore Throat
- Sudafed –Best for Congestion
- Benadryl Allergy Plus Congestion –Best for Runny Noses and Sneezing
- Mucinex DM –
Best for Cough