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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

  • Check the label before you use these medicines. They may not be safe for young children.
  • If you use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight. Not everyone needs the same amount of medicine.
  • Decongestants can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, or an overactive thyroid. Decongestants may also interact with some drugs, such as certain antidepressants and high blood pressure medicines. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose the best decongestant for you.
  • Drink extra fluids when you are taking cold medicines.
  • Don't use medicated nasal sprays or drops more than 3 times a day or for more than 3 days in a row. Continued use will cause a "rebound effect" in which your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
  • If you are pregnant, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using a decongestant.

For more information about medicine safety, see Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised December 21, 2011

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