Save Your Money! Five Over-The-Counter Cough & Cold Medicines That Don’t Actually Work

There are lots of over-the-counter medications that patients assume are effective because they’ve seen a lot of advertisements about them, gotten recommendations from friends, or see brightly-colored boxes stocked on pharmacy shelves.  But research shows that most over-the-counter cough and cold remedies don’t work any better than a placebo, which means you can save your money! Here are five medications that studies have proven to be ineffective in treating the common cold.

1. Guaifenesin. 

Guaifenesin is sold under the brand name Mucinex, and it’s also added to many multi-symptom cough and cold relief medicines.  Many patients think that if they have congestion or cough during a cold, Mucinex will alleviate their symptoms or resolve them faster.  But multiple studies have shown that Mucinex doesn’t work any better for congestion or cough than a placebo.

2. Phenylephrine.

Phenylephrine is a decongestant marketed as Sudafed PE, and also added to many multi-symptom cough and cold medicines.  But studies have shown that it doesn’t work any better than a placebo when it comes to clearing up the nasal congestion that colds can cause.  The more effective decongestant is pseudoephedrine, which, in California, requires patients to show an ID at the pharmacy counter to purchase it (because it was being used to make methamphetamine.)

3. Zinc.

Zinc sprays and lozenges haven’t been shown to be effective in resolving viral upper respiratory infections.  In addition, zinc nasal sprays can actually be dangerous.  Some patients permanently lost their sense of smell because zinc (a heavy metal) deposits along the olfactory nerve and prevents it from sending smell signals to the brain.

4. Antihistamines.

Antihistamines like Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra work well for allergies and for some allergic reactions.  However, antihistamines don’t work any better than a placebo when it comes to treating colds.  

5. Vitamin C.

Many patients think that if they start to feel a cold coming on, they should start pounding Vitamin C to keep from getting sick.  However, Vitamin C has not been proven to be an effective antidote for, or treatment of, the common cold. In fact, taking too much Vitamin C can damage your kidneys!  It’s important to get an adequate amount of Vitamin C in your diet each day (60-90 mg for the average adult), but taking high doses of it to treat a cold won’t help, and may even hurt you.


At Golden Gate Urgent Care, we offer the most cutting-edge, up-to-date health care in the Bay Area.  Make an appointment online or simply walk in to any of our six locations to get the care you need.

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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