Dr. Barbara Huggins

Do Decongestants Work?

November 9, 2006

Do Decongestants Work? -  November 9, 2006If you've used one of the over the counter medications for a recent cold, you probably noticed that it didn't seem to work as well as it did a few years ago. There may be a good reason for that. Dr. Mom has some reasons why this may be the case.

As of September 2006, federal restrictions were placed on the sale of pseudoephedrine, an industry standard decongestant that can be used to illegally produce methamphetamine. Because of these restrictions, many pharmaceutical companies reformulated some cold and allergy medications to keep them readily available on store shelves. Most companies switched to phenylephrine, which cannot be used to make methamphetamine.

Under an amendment to the Patriot Act, any medication containing pseudoephedrine will be put under lock and key. Consumers will no longer be able to purchase the medicine off the retail shelf, but will have to ask store employees for the drugs, show ID, and sign a sales log.

Phenylephrine has been commonly used in nonprescription nasal sprays and in eye and hemorrhoid medications for years. In these applications, phenylephrine is highly effective. But phenylephrine has been rarely used in oral decongestants since it is not absorbed into the bloodstream well enough to be effective.

People seeking relief from a cold can try a topical nose spray. Sprays with phenylephrine are safe and effective for the relief of nasal stuffiness due to a simple cold lasting less than a week. Using a nasal spray for more than a few days can cause a "rebound effect" where the nasal stuffiness gets worse.

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