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BYU study wants to — COUGH, COUGH — clear things up in the cold and flu aisle

The pharmacy or the cold and flu aisle at the grocery store is a familiar destination in the winter.
Tilda Wilson
The pharmacy or the cold and flu aisle at the grocery store is a familiar destination in the winter.

It’s cold and flu season and the symptoms are no joke. It can also be overwhelming to find the right over-the-counter treatment.

“When you go to the store, to that cold and flu aisle, it's ridiculous. There's so much stuff,” said Brigham Young University nursing professor Katreena Merrill.

It’s why she and fellow BYU professor Beth Luthy set out to clarify things in a recent study, which looked for the best medications to treat specific symptoms – such as a nagging cough or congestion.

The most important thing to look for is the active ingredients. Beyond that, Merrill said the brand name doesn’t matter.

“Cold medicines can be very expensive. I always look at the active ingredients and then buy the generic, if it’s available.”

If you are congested, look for pseudoephedrine. It will be in medications like Sudafed or Claritin-D, but not regular Claritin. Because it can be abused, medications containing pseudoephedrine will not be stocked on the shelf with the other cold and flu remedies. It’s still available over the counter, but you will have to ask a pharmacist for it.

For a cough, Merrill said dextromethorphan is the most effective ingredient. Guaifenesin is another active ingredient commonly found in cough medication, but Merrill said it might not be very helpful.

“It’s actually what’s called an expectorant. So it’s supposed to help you get crud out, but the problem is it’s not an effective cough suppressant, so it doesn’t decrease your cough.”

To relieve a runny nose, Merrill said an antihistamine like diphenhydramine should do the trick.

It’s important to note, however, that suppressing symptoms does not prevent the spread of more dangerous viruses like RSV, flu and COVID-19.

To do that, you should be “getting vaccinated, washing your hands, staying away from large groups and staying home if you're ill,” said Michael Leman, nursing director at the Utah County Health Department.

Utah County numbers of flu and RSV cases are higher this year compared to during and before the pandemic, Leman said, because there was a time when “everybody was taking all these extra precautions” and they didn't develop the typical seasonal partial immunity to the diseases.

“When everybody stopped taking those precautions, we got these large spikes because nobody had been developing this immunity.”

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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