It never fails to shock us that the common cold - so-called because it is so run-of-the-mill, simply so probable, so universal, so trivial - can unseat us entirely in body, mind and spirit. We know we will get colds, we accept them like bad traffic or a headache or the presence of mosquitoes. We don’t like them, but we don’t argue with them: they will happen, they are out of our control, they will not be pleasant. Yet this awareness and acceptance does nothing for us when in the throes of the misery of congestion and coughs and red eyes and endless boxes of tissues. The most energetic and powerful of human beings can be rendered a snuffling mess at the hands of the common cold. And there’s more to fear! The cold can indeed morph into its alter-ego and leave us shivering in bed with fevery sweats, our heads heavy and full of wet cotton wool, the surety that we will never feel ourselves again. We get the shots, we take the vitamins, we avoid the sickly and yet colds and flu continue to be part of our lives.
It’s no wonder that when a couple of tablets can offer relief from all of this that we will run to the closest pharmacy to ask for the strongest dose possible to help us get through the days and nights. Cold and flu tablets are a miracle of modern medicine - save the cure of the common cold, escape from the haze of the virus is the best we can hope for.
Cold and flu tablets were first introduced in the early 20th century but not available over the counter until 1920 - so we’re still talking about a fairly new medicine. One of the most active ingredients in many cold and flu tablets - pseudoephedrine - was not used until the 1980s, so it is really only in the last 40 years that we have been able to feel true relief.
A couple of tiny tablets can pack a mighty punch, and cold and flu tablets are able to relieve:
- The hot/cold night and day sweats of a fever: tablets containing acetaminophen (paracetamol) can help to lower fever by reducing the body's production of prostaglandins, which are chemicals that cause inflammation and fever.
- The hacking cough that keeps you awake: cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan or codeine are in many cold and flu tablets (though codeine may require a prescription in many countries), which work to reduce the intensity and frequency of coughing by suppressing the cough reflex.
- The dripping tap, stuffed up, snuffling cotton wool feeling of nasal congestion: Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, and oxymetazoline can help to reduce nasal congestion by constricting blood vessels in the nasal passages, which reduces swelling and allows for easier breathing - one of the most acutely felt reliefs in the midst of the cold and flu season.
- An aching or scratching throat: pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen help to reduce the pain and discomfort associated with a sore throat.
- Body aches and pains: The acetaminophen or ibuprofen for sore throats can also help to relieve body aches and pains associated with colds and flu.
So you’d be crazy not to take them, right?
But it’s worth being informed of some of the side effects or drawbacks of the common cold and flu tablets too.
Side effects and drawbacks can include:
- Unexpected sleepiness or drowsiness: The cold and flu tablets that contain antihistamines, can impair alertness and cause you to feel sleepier and less aware than normal, which can mean tasks like driving, working, minding children can become more challenging or even dangerous.
- Tummy issues: Some cold and flu tablets can cause upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting. This is especially true if they are taken on an empty stomach, or are interacting with other medications taken.
- Interactions with other medications While an upset stomach is one possible side effect of medication interaction, there are more serious implications for people on medications such as blood thinners or antidepressants. The active ingredients in cold and flu tablets can be incredibly dangerous for those taking life-saving medications, and should be used with caution.
- Overuse or misuse: As with many medications, using them too often (especially pain relief meds) can lead to liver damage, stomach bleeding, or other serious health problems.
- Masking of underlying conditions: It’s good to be aware that simply continuing to treat symptoms can mask underlying medical conditions, such as infections or allergies, which can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment.
A few people in particular should avoid the cold and flu tablet, no matter how miserable the symptoms. These people include:
- Children under the age of 6: Medications containing aspirin or codeine should be avoided in kids under the age of 6. Parents should consult a healthcare professional before giving any medication to children.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women: Certain ingredients such as aspirin or high doses of vitamin C are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women - despite the extra misery felt when trying to look after babies and small children. A chat with an obstetrician or healthcare professional is always recommended.
- People with certain medical conditions: People with certain medical conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, or asthma, may need to use caution when using cold and flu tablets, as some ingredients may exacerbate these conditions. This is especially true of people with cardiovascular issues, as many ingredients in cold and flu tablets interact with the blood and clotting systems within the body. Constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure is not recommended for those with cardiovascular concerns so they must exercise caution in using cold and flu tablets.
- People with allergies: Some cold and flu tablets may contain ingredients that can trigger allergies or adverse reactions, such as lactose or certain food dyes.
- People taking other medications: Cold and flu tablets can interact with other medications, such as blood thinners, antidepressants, or certain antibiotics, which can increase the risk of side effects or reduce the effectiveness of the medication.
So while the invention of the cold and flu tablet has enabled people to push through the debilitating symptoms associated with colds and the flu, it’s important to be aware of both side effects and preexisting conditions that could make the payoff of symptom relief simply not worth it.