Decongestants

Decongestants may help shrink swollen tissues in the nose, sinuses, throat, and the space behind the eardrum (middle ear). This may relieve pressure and pain.

Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral) or used as nose drops or sprays. Oral decongestants are probably more effective and provide longer relief, but they cause more side effects. There are only two nonprescription decongestants that you can take as a pill: pseudoephedrine (such as Sudafed) and phenylephrine (such as Sudafed PE). In some states, any medicine that contains pseudoephedrine is kept behind the pharmacist's counter so you will need to ask the pharmacist for it. In other states, you have to have a prescription from your doctor to buy medicine containing pseudoephedrine.

Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Neo-Synephrine is an effective nasal spray. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other medicines, which may be a problem with oral decongestants.

Decongestant precautions

  • Do not give decongestants to a child younger than 2 unless your child’s doctor has told you to. If your child’s doctor tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do. Nonprescription cold medicines have not been proven effective for preschool children.
  • Do not use medicated nasal sprays or drops more often than directed and not longer than 3 days. Continued use will cause your mucous membranes to swell up more than before using the spray (rebound effect).
  • Drink extra fluids when taking cold medicines.
  • If you are uncertain about which decongestant to use, ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose one.

Last Updated: February 25, 2010

Author: Jan Nissl, RN, BS

Medical Review: David Messenger, MD Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

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