Think you know the best meds for common health woes? Think again—and consult our cheat sheet.
Chances are, you have no shortage of OTC helpers on your medicine-cabinet shelves. But chances are also good that you’re clueless about how they work and which one is right for what ails you.
Per a study, only 41 percent of people read the ingredients labels on nonprescription meds before buying them, and nearly 70 percent have no idea what’s in some of their drugs.
Here to help: a guide to the fastest-acting fixes.
Healthy Dose YOUR AILMENT:
YOUR OPTIONS: diphenhydramine, fexofenadine, cetirizine, loratadine
YOUR BEST BET: cetirizine
This group of (barely pronounceable!) meds is often referred to as antihistamines, which are your go-to for relief from seasonal sneezing and dripping. Research shows cetirizine is the most all-around effective at relieving symptoms caused by your body’s overactive immune response to allergens, though it does make a small percentage of users drowsy, says JamesSublett, M.D., managing partner of Family Allergy & Asthma in Louisville, Kentucky. For a nonsedating option, take a med with loratadine. Or try something more natural. “Research shows that using a bottle of saline nasal spray with a few drops of peppermint oil added
can ease nasal congestion,” says Sakina Bajowala, M.D., an allergist and immunologist in North Aurora, Illinois.
YOUR OPTIONS: ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, naproxen
YOUR BEST BET: ibuprofen
While all of the above can ease head pounders, antiinflammatories like ibuprofen work the fastest, says Andrew Blumenfeld, M.D., director of the Headache Center of Southern California. It puts the kibosh on production of natural chemicals called prostaglandins that play a major role in noggin pain.
Ibuprofen also helps deflate two common headache triggers: tense neck muscles and swollen blood vessels around your temples.
One study found ibuprofen to be more effective than acetaminophen for any kind of pain, and experts suggest popping it for a fever too, since those prostaglandins are also tied to elevated body temps.
A small cut
YOUR OPTIONS: hydrogen peroxide, neomycin, iodine, isopropyl alcohol
YOUR BEST BET: none of the above
“Even if you cut yourself with a knife that you just used on raw chicken, washing the area
gently with regular soap, then flushing it with cool running water for five minutes is the
most effective thing you can do to ensure you don’t get a wound infection,” says emergency physician Rahul Khare, M.D., of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Skip the layering on of hydrogen peroxide, iodine, and isopropyl alcohol, as their repeated usage can actually damage and inflame wounded skin cells and lengthen healing time.
Your options: aloe, calamine, hydrocortisone, pramoxine hydrochloride, diphenhydramine
Your best bet: calamine
A review in Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin found that OTC remedies like antihistamines and topical hydrocortisones generally aren’t too effective in quelling the itching that springs from
skin irritants such as bug bites.
What does work, says Khare, is icing the itchy area, then slathering on calamine lotion. “It includes natural plant-derived chemicals that have a cooling effect on the skin,” he says.
(For recurrent itching or hives, see an M.D. stat.)
Your options: guaifenesin, dextromethorphan, pseudoephedrine
Your best bet: guaifenesin Popping a decongestant like pseudoephedrine at the first sign of sniffles shrinks blood vessels in the nasal passages and promotes nose and sinus draining. But if you’re already congested, opt for guaifenesin, which thins the mucus that’s lodged in your lungs, making it easier for you to cough it out, says Roberta Lee, M.D., vice chair of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Gulp down a big glass of water as you take your dose; extra fluids will further break up phlegm and
lubricate your throat.
Take a cough suppressant like dextromethorphan only when you’re desperate to quiet a dry cough. It works in the brain to decrease your cough reflex, but it can make expelling anything harder (hence, prolonged hacking).
Your options: docosanol, benzocaine
Your best bet: docosanol Cold sores stem from HSV-1, a type of herpes virus
that can’t be cured. It can, however, be controlled. Docosanol helps cut down on the duration of outbreaks and reduces symptoms like pain and itching, according to a study from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Just be sure to act quickly: The second you feel a cold sore coming on (early symptoms include tingling, itching, and redness),
smear on some docosanol, then repeat up to five times a day for 10 days. And stock up on another musthave medicine-cabinet item: SPF 30. “Sun exposure can trigger cold-sore outbreaks, so also be sure to always coat your lips with an SPF lip balm,” advises Lee.
Your options: benzocaine, menthol, ibuprofen
Your best bet: benzocaine and ibuprofen
First, toss any sugary-sweet lozenges you may have lying around; they taste good but offer scant relief. Stronger than menthol, benzocaine is a local anesthetic, or numbing agent, that relieves discomfort by blocking nerve pain signals. Benzocaine throat sprays often deliver
faster, stronger aid than cough drops laced with the stuff, and subsequently swallowing an ibuprofen tablet can bring down painful throat inflammation, says Lee.
You can also stir a little honey into a cup of tea. Honey’s natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties (manuka honey, available at health food stores, works best) may soothe a sore throat and jump-start healing.
All Fitness ____ By Kristen Dold