Best meds for congestion and sore throat

Types of cold medicine | Best cold medicines | How to get rid of a cold fast | Natural remedies | Symptom-specific cold medicines | When to see a doctor

The common cold is a viral infection that affects the nose and throat. The bad news is that it takes some time to get over a cold virus, but the good news is that treatment requires just a quick trip to the pharmacy. Cold medicine like decongestants and cough suppressants can help alleviate symptoms such as a stuffy nose or sore throat. Let’s take a look at some of the best cold medicines so you’ll know what to look for if you or one of your family members gets a cold. 

Types of cold medicines

The following list of cold medicines can help treat cold symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, sore throat, or coughing. None of these medications can cure a cold; they only provide symptomatic relief. 


Antihistamines primarily treat allergies. Since there is some overlap between allergy and cold symptoms, antihistamines can also treat sneezing, runny noses, and itchy and watery eyes that come from having a cold. First-generation antihistamines are preferred over second-generation antihistamines because they’re better at treating symptoms like sneezing and a runny nose. Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines that can help treat cold symptoms include:

  • Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine maleate)
  • Tavist (clemastine fumarate)

Other antihistamines like Astelin (azelastine), available as a nasal spray or eye drops, require a prescription from a doctor.

RELATED: Non-drowsy Benadryl: What are my options?

Cough suppressants 

One of the best medications for a cold accompanied by a cough is a cough suppressant. Cough suppressants are especially helpful to take at night when many people have difficulty sleeping because of their cough. Cough suppressants (also called antitussives) work by suppressing the urge to cough. The most common OTC cough suppressant for the common cold is dextromethorphan, as found in Delsym and combination formulations of Robitussin.

For more severe coughing that lasts longer than a few weeks, a doctor may prescribe a cough medicine like codeine or hydrocodone-acetaminophen. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend over-the-counter cough medicine for children younger than 2 years old, and prescription cough medicines containing hydrocodone or codeine aren’t indicated for use in children or adolescents younger than 18.


Expectorants help to thin out mucus, making it easier to cough up mucus and alleviate chest congestion. There are many OTC expectorant products available, which contain guaifenesin as its active ingredient:

  • Tussin (guaifenesin)
  • Mucinex ER (extended-release guaifenesin)

Expectorants and antitussives can be found together in many OTC combination products, such as Robitussin DM (guaifenesin and dextromethorphan). 

RELATED: How to stop coughing at night


Decongestants are medications that can be taken orally or through a nasal spray. “Decongestants are medications that shrink the swollen membranes in the nose, allowing for easier breathing,” says Morton Tavel, MD, a clinical professor emeritus of medicine in Indiana. “Patients with high blood pressure should use decongestants with caution, best accomplished under a doctor’s supervision.” A nasal spray decongestant, oxymetazoline (Afrin), should be used sparingly and for no more than 1 to 2 days, given its side effect of causing rebound nasal congestion

Here are some of the most common OTC decongestants:  

  • Mucinex D (pseudoephedrine-guaifenesin)  
  • Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) 
  • Afrin (oxymetazoline) 

Pain relievers 

Occasionally, a cold can cause various symptoms like mild body aches, headaches, and in rare cases, fevers – like flu symptoms. However, if you experience these symptoms, you might actually have the flu. Pain relievers can help relieve painful symptoms that other cold medications can’t. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen, and other pain relievers like acetaminophen can be purchased over-the-counter for pain relief and to help reduce fevers. 

Some combination cold medicines already include acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so it’s always a good idea to double-check the label before taking a pain reliever with cold medicine. Ibuprofen and aspirin shouldn’t be given to children younger than 6 months unless directed by a doctor.   

RELATED: What’s the best pain reliever or fever reducer for kids?

If you’re unsure about what type of cold medication you need, it’s always best to talk with your doctor. In most cases, a doctor will probably recommend over-the-counter cold medicine, and in rare cases, they may recommend stronger prescription drugs. Many people will ask their doctor for antibiotics, but colds are viral and won’t respond to antibiotics.

What is the best cold medicine to use?

Unlike the flu medicine, Tamiflu (oseltamivir), there is no antiviral medication available for the common cold. The best cold medicine to use will vary depending on the symptoms someone has. For example, someone who has a cold and cough may need to take a cough suppressant, whereas someone with a cold and stuffy nose might need to take a decongestant. Taking a decongestant when you don’t have a stuffy nose probably isn’t going to help you if you’re searching for relief from a sore throat. 

Finding the best cold medicine depends on which cold symptoms you want the most relief from—find a medication that treats those symptoms. Some treatments even provide multi-symptom relief and would say so on the label.

If you’re still unsure about which cold medicine to choose, you can always ask your healthcare provider, including your pharmacist, for advice. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor or pharmacist if taking cold medicine will interfere with your prescription medications, as drug-drug interactions can cause unwanted side effects.

Best cold medicinesType of drugSymptoms treatmentSingleCare savingsChlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine maleate)AntihistamineAlleviates sneezes, runny noses, itchy and watery eyesChlor-Trimeton couponsTavist (clemastine fumarate)AntihistamineAlleviates sneezes, runny noses, itchy and watery eyesClemastine couponsDelsym (dextromethorphan)Cough suppressantReduces the urge to coughDelsym couponsSudafed (pseudoephedrine)DecongestantRelieves congestion and a stuffy nose; makes it easier to breatheSudafed couponsAfrin (oxymetazoline)DecongestantRelieves congestion and a stuffy nose; makes it easier to breatheAfrin couponsMucinex D (pseudoephedrine- guaifenesin)Decongestant – expectorantRelieves congestion and a stuffy nose; alleviates chest congestionMucinex D couponsMucinex (guaifenesin)ExpectorantAlleviates chest congestion; makes it easier to cough up mucusMucinex couponsRobafen (guaifenesin)ExpectorantAlleviates chest congestion; makes it easier to cough up mucusRobafen couponsAdvil (ibuprofen)Pain relieverTreats body aches, headaches, and feversAdvil couponsTylenol (acetaminophen)Pain relieverTreats body aches, headaches, and feversTylenol couponsAleve (naproxen)Pain relieverTreats body aches, headaches, and feversAleve couponsZincSupplementReduces duration of a coldZinc couponsEchinaceaSupplementReduces duration of a cold and may prevent contracting the common coldEchinacea coupons

How do you get rid of a cold fast?

Generally, once infected with the common cold you simply must allow it to run its course. The average cold lasts anywhere from several days to several weeks. Even though you won’t beat a cold in 24 hours, with proper medicine and home remedies, you should be able to get symptom relief quickly which may help you feel like yourself in just a few days. Here are some of the best cold remedies: 

  • Get plenty of rest: Staying well-rested while you’re sick with a cold will help your body heal faster by giving your immune system a break. Working overtime, staying busy, and exercising with a cold can put unwanted stress on your immune system. 
  • Stay hydrated: Drinking water while you have a cold will help keep your nose and throat moist, reducing how much you cough and loosen up mucus that causes congestion. 
  • Use a humidifier: Running a humidifier in your room at night will help relieve nasal congestion and soothe the nose and throat. This is especially helpful for reducing coughing at night.
  • Try over-the-counter medications: Using an over-the-counter medication such as those listed above can help treat specific symptoms you might be experiencing from a cold. 
  • Supplement with zinc and echinacea: Taking zinc at the first signs of a cold may help shorten the duration of symptoms. Not only does zinc support immune function, but it also has an antiviral effect. Echinacea may reduce the duration and severity of acute respiratory viral illnesses like the common cold, and it may also cut the chances of catching a cold. Like zinc, echinacea is best taken at the first signs of illness and can be purchased from health food stores and some grocery stores.
  • Choose healthy foods to eat: Eating certain foods while you’re sick can lower your immune system. Refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods can keep your body from fighting off a cold properly. Fresh fruits rich in vitamin C and vegetables will help you heal faster.

Staying at home while you’re treating your cold is always a good idea if you’re able to do so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home if you have a cold to help prevent spreading it to others. Keeping children out of school or daycare if they have a cold is also a good idea to help keep others from getting sick. 

Natural remedies for colds

While there is no silver bullet, some remedies exist in addition to the above to help manage symptoms of a cold and possibly prevent further complications, like secondary bacterial infections. The following are examples of natural remedies you can try: 

  • Gargling with salt water can help soothe a sore and scratchy throat–just mix a teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water 
  • Hard candies or throat lozenges are a good alternative
  • Drinking warm fluids can help thin mucus in the throat and will help you stay hydrated 
  • Chicken noodle soup is another great way to make sure you’re taking in lots of fluids, and hydration may prevent complications like sinus infections
  • Honey can help soothe sore throats, so consider adding a spoonful to your warm tea
  • Like zinc, elderberry supplementation may reduce the duration and severity of symptoms

Best cold medicine for specific symptoms

​​​​When choosing the best cold medicine for adults, you will want to consider the specific symptoms you wish to treat. The best over-the-counter cold medicine will vary depending on the type of cold and specific symptoms that you are presenting.

Best cold medicine for sore throat

A sore throat can be uncomfortable, and even prevent you from consuming the nutrient-rich foods that will help with your recovery. Local anesthetics, like a chloraseptic spray or throat lozenges, can help with this discomfort. A sore throat may also be caused by postnasal drip, and using an OTC antihistamine can provide symptom relief, as well. If your sore throat persists, you might want to be checked for strep throat. 

Best cold medicine for headache

Headaches occur frequently with the common cold. Often, headaches happen secondarily to swelling in the nasal passages and accumulation of mucus, and may result in what is referred to as a sinus headache-causing pressure and pain in the forehead, behind the eyes, and worsens with bending over or lying down. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen will provide the best pain relief as they reduce inflammation. Other medications, like expectorants and decongestants, can complement the NSAID to help drain the mucus and decrease the pressure. 

Best cold medicine for coughing

Viruses like those which cause the common cold are a leading cause of either wet coughs, (also known as productive coughs) as well as dry coughs (non-productive coughs). A wet cough is the body’s way of clearing mucus from airways and is best treated with an expectorant like guaifenesin. Dry, hacking coughs are important to prevent a sore throat and assist you in getting that much needed rest to maximize your recovery. Cough suppressants will be your go-to class of medications for this type of cough, and a cough syrup like Delsym (dextromethorphan) is the highest pharmacist-recommended brand.   

Best cold medicine for runny nose

Antihistamines are the best medications for a runny nose, since they tend to have drying properties. First-generation antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine, come with usually unwanted side effects like drowsiness. Diphenhydramine should also be used with caution in elderly patients since it can result in confusion and may increase the risk of events like falls. Later-generation antihistamines, including chlorpheniramine, are also very effective in drying up those runny noses but may not cause as many of those unwanted side effects. 

Best cold medicine for fever

Antipyretics refer to a class of medications that reduce fever. Examples of antipyretics include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin), which are available over-the-counter. You should always read the label carefully for proper dosage, and if you’re taking other combination cold medication products make sure you are not exceeding the maximum daily dose of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Best cold medicine for stuffy nose 

Decongestants are very effective in managing stuffy noses and sinus pressure but should be used with caution in many scenarios. Decongestants come as nasal sprays and pills that can be taken orally. Afrin (oxymetazoline) is a nasal spray that can be instilled into each nostril up to twice daily. However, it should not be used for more than 3 consecutive 

days since it can cause a phenomenon known as rebound congestion – resulting in a stuffy nose that is worse than how you started. Pseudoephedrine is a very effective oral decongestant but can cause insomnia, so the time of day it is taken should be taken cautiously. Due to its ability to relax blood vessels beyond the nasal passages, it should be used only under the discretion of a healthcare provider by pregnant women. Pseudoephedrine can also cause a rapid heart rate which might increase blood pressure and is recommended to be avoided in those with chronic health conditions like a diagnosis of high blood pressure (HBP), also known as hypertension.  

Best cold medicine for body aches

Analgesics refer to medications that relieve different types of pain. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are also examples of analgesics, so for those suffering from both a fever and body aches, many will experience relief from both symptoms with a single agent. These are common ingredients in combination cold medication products, so always be sure to read the labels of the medications you are taking. These medications may need to be avoided with certain health conditions, so you can always discuss with an expert if these are your best option.

Best cold medicine for children

Cold medicines for children can get tricky. Children should not be given medications that are packaged and made for adults, and parents need to be aware that OTC products may contain multiple ingredients. It is very important to pay attention to the drug label, and discuss any questions with healthcare professionals since the risk of giving children more than the recommended dose, giving medication too often, and giving more than one product containing the same medication are common mistakes made. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against using cough and cold medications in young children. It is also important to avoid any aspirin-containing medications in children, especially those with viral illnesses, given the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Medications containing codeine and its derivatives, while effective in treating cough, should be avoided in those less than 18 years of age. 


After three infants died from high levels of pseudoephedrine in their systems, in 2008 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that over-the-counter cough and cold medications should not be used in children under the age of 2 due to the potential for serious and life-threatening side effects. Drug manufacturers have since relabeled products with warnings not to be given to children younger than 4 years old in alignment with recommendations from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA). Medications for toddlers with colds should be discussed with your pediatrician. Medication use is likely limited to symptom control with NSAIDs and acetaminophen.


Available medications for infants with colds are even more limited than for toddlers. While acetaminophen can be used for fever control and may help with some other irritating symptoms like headache, NSAIDs like ibuprofen should be avoided in infants less than 6 months due to the risk of damage to kidneys; in infants greater than 6 months, use should only occur after discussion with your pediatrician. As with toddlers, cough and cold medications should be avoided in compliance with the AAP and the FDA.  More natural approaches to symptom control, like nasal saline drops followed by suctioning to clear congested passages and the use of a cool-mist humidifier to loosen mucus, are safe alternatives given these medication limitations.

When to see a doctor for cold symptoms?

Even though most colds go away on their own with a little self-care, some colds can become more severe and require medical attention. If you have a cold and have any of the following symptoms, you should consider calling your doctor to schedule an appointment:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • High fever
  • Fever lasting longer than five days
  • Severe sinus pain

These symptoms could be signs of a more serious medical condition like pneumonia or a sinus infection. Your healthcare provider will do a physical examination and ask about your medical history to determine what might be causing your symptoms. After your exam, he or she will be able to determine the best treatment option for you.

What is the best medicine for congestion and sore throat?

The following list of cold medicines can help treat cold symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, sore throat, or coughing. None of these medications can cure a cold; they only provide symptomatic relief..
Mucinex D (pseudoephedrine-guaifenesin).
Sudafed (pseudoephedrine).
Afrin (oxymetazoline).

How do you get rid of a sore throat and congestion?

Cold remedies that work.
Stay hydrated. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey helps loosen congestion and prevents dehydration. ... .
Rest. Your body needs rest to heal..
Soothe a sore throat. ... .
Combat stuffiness. ... .
Relieve pain. ... .
Sip warm liquids. ... .
Try honey. ... .
Add moisture to the air..