WVXU: FDA says decongestant in over-the-counter cold medicines doesn't work

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration agreed unanimously last month that an ingredient found in many over-the-counter cold medicines called phenylephrine doesn't work to clear nasal congestion when taken orally.

Ahmad Sedaghat, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Rhinology, Allergy and Anterior Skull Base Surgery at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine and a UC Health physician, and Michael Hegener, PharmD, associate professor of pharmacy at UC's James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy, joined WVXU's Cincinnati Edition to discuss the recent announcement.

Hegener explained phenylephrine is a decongestant that works by shrinking blood vessels in the nose, which opens up the nasal cavities and helps people breathe easier. Many drug companies replaced the drug pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine in their over the counter products after federal legislation made it harder to access pseudoephedrine because it can be used to make methamphetamines.

Hegener noted the FDA recommendation was for oral tablet products that contain phenylephrine, not nasal sprays.

"The effectiveness of the nasal spray has been established more firmly and that’s not what’s up for debate today," Hegener said. "It’s the oral form that everyone is talking about."

Sedaghat said oftentimes cold medicines have a combination of active drugs in them, so consumers may not want to throw away products with phenylephrine because the other ingredients could still be helpful.

"One thing that I’ve also recommended to patients to do is to look at their favorite cold medication and see what the active ingredients are in that medication, and because that cold medication will potentially have had other ingredients that will not get pulled off of shelves, the patients can go ahead and get the other medications that are in their favorite combination cold medicine," he said.

While effective, Sedaghat said the nasal sprays can raise blood pressure and become addictive, so patients are advised to use the spray no more than two to three days in a row. Patients can also seek out saline rinses to help clear congestion, he said.

Listen to the Cincinnati Edition segment.

Featured photo at top of a man sneezing. Photo/dragana991/iStock.

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