Doctors warn that common decongestants may not help your stuffy nose

ALABAMA (WHNT) — Bad news for those suffering from stuffy noses this cold and flu season: A medication that pharmaceutical companies claim is a decongestant may not work to clear your nasal passages.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing many over-the-counter cold and flu medications after research showed a common ingredient did not work as advertised.

Phenylephrine has been used as an over-the-counter decongestant for over 50 years. It’s easy to find and buy, but you may not be treating the symptoms you think you’re experiencing when you take it.

“The FDA has reviewed about five studies published over the last two decades, or about 20 years,” said Dr. De-Yeon Cho, a UAB otolaryngologist and associate professor. “They found that all of these studies demonstrate that phenylephrine is not effective as a placebo, meaning it’s not really effective in controlling patients’ symptoms.”

The drug is found in medications like Tylenol Cold & Flu, Theraflu Severe Cold & Cough, and Mucinex. If you have these medications in your cabinet at home, Cho said you can continue to use them safely.

“I really don’t recommend throwing it away right now,” Cho said. “The FDA says it may not really help you with some symptoms, but there are other ingredients that can help you reduce mucus, like Mucinex.”

Medications containing phenylephrine are often aimed at treating several symptoms at once, including headache, cough, and reduction of mucus. Cho said, if you’re specifically looking for a decongestant, you have options.

“Put hot steam in your nose and put a small hot towel on it,” Cho said. “I would recommend using a topical steroid spray instead of taking a decongestant.”

If you look behind the counter at your pharmacy, you may notice another type of decongestant, pseudoephedrine. The drug can be found in Allegra-D, Claritin-D and Sudafed. The FDA has not questioned its effectiveness, but doctors don’t always recommend it as a first option for their patients.

“These decongestants also affect your blood vessels,” Cho said. “They constrict all your blood vessels. Some people suffer from heart rate problems, high blood pressure and diabetes. They all interact with many medications.

Cho said to keep an eye on the expiration dates of medications you have at home. He says not to worry about disposing of products containing phenylephrine until their expiration date.

If you stay congested for more than a few days at a time, Cho says the symptom may be indicative of an underlying problem. He recommends that you make an appointment with your doctor.


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