Common cold drugs not only taste bad, they don't work

Ever feel like your cold medication isn’t really doing the job? That may be because it’s literally not doing the job—or any job, for that matter.

What happened: An FDA advisory panel found that an active ingredient commonly found in cold medicine is no more effective than a placebo for treating congestion. 

  • The drug, oral phenylephrine, is found in at least 250 products, according to the FDA, including certain types of Nyquil, Tylenol, and Sudafed.

  • While not harmful, the 16-person panel unanimously concluded that oral phenylephrine doesn’t do much of anything at the dosage found in cold medication.

Why it matters: The guidance could lead health regulators to ban the ingredient, which would force drug companies to develop new formulations of their products, potentially creating shortages of cold and flu medicine.

  • It could also push more people to use the decongestant pseudoephedrine, which is more difficult to get—rules vary from province to province, but it’s typically kept behind the counter at pharmacies, and in limited supply. 

Bottom line: Next time you want to clear up a runny nose, be sure to check the ingredients first—until regulators say otherwise, drugmakers can continue selling phenylephrine even if it doesn’t work.—TS