Teresa Sullivan stared at the rows of cold medicines at Target in Burnsville one recent morning, weighing her options.

“It’s really hard,” she said about choosing one.

A mother of 10, she came prepared to buy the brand her daughter had requested for sinus congestion relief — only to discover there were “so many” kinds of Mucinex on the shelf. There’s Mucinex Sinus-Max Severe Congestion Relief, Mucinex Fast-Max Cold & Sinus, Mucinex Sinus-Max Full Force, and on and on.

As anyone who’s hunted for a good over-the-counter cold remedy knows, the medicine aisle can be a confounding place.

“It can be pretty confusing,” said Victoria Peterson, a Target pharmacist. “There are a lot of different brands. There are a lot of factors that go into play.”

We enlisted Peterson to guide us through the ever-expanding options for treating the most common cold and flu symptoms for adults.

Her advice: Know your symptoms and pay attention to the ingredients listed. In fact, Peterson doesn’t waste time reading the front of the packaging. Flip it over, she says, and scan the back label. Focusing on the active ingredients also makes it easier to pick out a less expensive, generic brand. Here are some guidelines for finding the right medicine to suit your symptoms:

Sore throat

Look for: Most cough drops are full of sugar and sucking on them causes us to salivate, lubricating the throat. The active ingredient is often pectin (also used in jelly). But brands like Chloraspetic and Cepacol make cough drops with benzocaine, which suppress irritation and pain.

Pharmacist Victoria Peterson says: “Benzocaine works like novocaine at the dentist’s office. It numbs the throat.”


Chest congestion

Look for: Guaifenesin, an expectorant that helps loosen phlegm by thinning mucus. Found in products such as Tylenol Cold & Flu and Mucinex D.

Pharmacist says: It makes coughs more productive and comforts people because “when you have a lot of mucus, you kind of want to get rid of it.”



Look for: Dextromethorphan, found in brands like Delsym and products with the letters “DM” in the name, such as Robitussin DM.

Pharmacist says: “This works if all you need is a cough suppressant.” It decreases activity in the brain that causes common coughing.

Nasal congestion

Look for: Nasal decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed, are kept behind the pharmacist’s counter because the ingredient also can be used to make methamphetamine. Nasal decongestants sold over the counter contain phenylephrine, and will include the letters “PE,” as in Sudafed PE. Those doesn’t work as well, Peterson says.

Pharmacist says: The ones with pseudoephedrine “can increase blood pressure and make your heart race. All these medications have side effects, so you’ll want to do a pharmacy consultation first.”


Body aches

Look for: Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen.

Pharmacist says: Found in brands like TheraFlu Multi-Symptom Severe Cold or DayQuil/NyQuil Cold & Flu Relief. Both active ingredients reduce pain and help bring down a fever. Ibuprofen is also anti-inflammatory.


Runny nose º

Look for: Antihistamine is the active ingredient used to treat allergy symptoms, and also is included in some cold medicines, such as Alka-Seltzer Plus Nighttime Cold Medicine or Contac Cold + Flu Day/Night.

Pharmacist says: Medications with antihistamine work by blocking the body’s urge to flush out irritants through a runny nose. “It’s your body’s response to fight something, but it’s kind of annoying in a way.”


An ounce of prevention

Of course, prevention is the best medicine, and a number of products claim to protect you from getting sick. Once again, we asked Peterson for her take on three common brands of cold prevention supplements:

Emergen-C: Vitamin C is great for immune support. “It’s a good boost,” she says, but added that because it’s acidic and people tend to consume too much, it can cause irritation.

Airborne: Has vitamins to make your body stronger. “The idea is the healthier you are, the stronger you are to fight an infection.”

Cold-Eeze: Active ingredient is zinc gluconate. “Zinc is great because it actually prevents bacteria and virus from growing,” Peterson said.