There's a Good Chance Your Over-the-Counter Cold Medicine Doesn't Work

Tony Merevick/Thrillist
Tony Merevick/Thrillist

If you get sick during cold and flu season, you're probably among the millions who pay through the running nose for over-the-counter cold medications. In fact, Americans spend $8 billion on the stuff every year, because the fleeting relief is worth every penny, right? But what if the medication doesn't actually provide relief at all? Unfortunately, new research suggests that's the case with a medication widely used to alleviate nasal congestion from a cold and allergies.

Experts at the University of Florida say phenylephrine, an oral decongestant used in popular over-the-counter brands, flat out doesn't work when taking the FDA-approved dose and even much higher doses, according to a report by Forbes. A quick stroll through a drug store cold medicine aisle (shudder) will reveal phenylephrine on almost every over-the-counter cold medicine option, likely thanks to federal restrictions on products containing pseudoephedrine because, well, it can be used to make meth. Remember "Breaking Bad"?

Specifically, a recent study from the Allergy & Asthma Medical Group & Research Center in San Diego finds that the FDA-approved dose of 10mg and even 40mg doses of phenylephrine failed to relieve congestion better than a placebo after researchers studied 539 adults over the course of a week, according to the report.

Now, the University of Florida researchers, lead by Randy Hatton, are calling on the FDA to take the drug off the market in an editorial published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

"We think the evidence supports that phenylephrine’s status as a safe and effective over-the-counter product should be changed,” Hatton said, per the report. “We are looking out for the consumer, and he or she needs to know that science says that oral phenylephrine does not work for the majority of people.”

It's as if cold and flu season didn't suck enough already. Now, there's even less hope of surviving.

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Tony Merevick is Cities News Editor at Thrillist and actually just got over a cold, so this is not exciting at all. Send news tips to and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.