Hold it -- don't reach for that cold remedy yet.
You may not need a doctor for that stuffy nose or hacking cough, but you do need to know what you're taking -- or giving to your child. And that magic formula that promises to fix it all may not be what you need.
"The fewer ingredients in an over-the-counter medication, the better," says Dr. Joanne Gaul, a Grand Forks, N.D., family physician. "When you take one that has lots of ingredients, you're probably taking some medication you don't need. And that's never good."
Many cold remedies are what Jeff Zak, pharmacy director at United Hospital in Grand Forks, calls "shotgun" preparations. They contain a decongestant, an antihistamine, a cough suppressant, perhaps a pain-killer such as acetaminophen.
If you don't have an allergy, you don't need the antihistamine, which induces drowsiness in many people. If you're just coughing, you don't need a decongestant that can cause dry mouth and throat.
Many liquid formulas also contain alcohol -- up to 25 percent. That's twice the alcohol content of most wines (10 percent to 12 percent) and more than half that of 80 proof liquor (40 percent).
That's why Dr. Gaul recommends people become familiar with the names of ingredients in medications and take only those they need.
"If you have fever, take acetaminophen," says Dr. Gaul. "If you're congested, take a decongestant. Treat your symptoms specifically."
Learn the lingo of the labels.
What do you look for? Somewhere on the label you'll find a listing of active ingredients. Here's a primer of what to look for to treat what symptoms:
* Decongestant (for stuffiness): Phenylpropanolamine, phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine.
* Antihistamine (for allergy symptoms): Chlorpheniramine, clemastine, diphenhydramine, doxylamine.
* Cough suppressant: Dextromethorphan, guaifenesin.
L * Analgesic (pain/fever): Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen.
* Throat relief: Menthol, phenol.
"Remember that what works for one person may not work the samefor someone else," Mr. Zak cautions. "And people may have different reactions -- an antihistamine that makes you sleepy may not affect me at all."
There also may be something in those old home remedies, Mr. Zak says.
"Like hot lemon stuff. The lemon probably helps break up congestion and the steam opens up nasal passages."
Dr. Gaul prefers such treatments for children.
"I am not fond of giving medication to them," she says. "It's better to just use a humidifier and just let them wait it out."
Dr. Gaul says that if a child is coughing to the point of vomiting, has a fever above 104 degrees, or coughs up sputum, a physician should be consulted.
"And you should see a doctor if you're unable to keep food or liquids down because there's a danger of dehydration."
Both Dr. Gaul and Mr. Zak stressed that alcohol should never be mixed with any medication. Dr. Gaul adds that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should always check with a physician before taking any medication.
Mr. Zak also notes that many over-the-counter preparations are available in generic brands that cost less than name brands for the same formula.
PD That's another good reason to read the label before you swallow.