Study: Some over-the-counter cold medicines no better than placebo

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News 12 First at Five / Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WRDW) -- Chances are you have some cold and flu medicines in your cabinet, but all the money you spend on them could be a total waste.

When that sniffle won't go away, we'll reach for just about anything to make us feel better.

But, a new study shows the ingredient in most of the over-the-counter meds you reach for is no better than a placebo.

Cold and flu season is an $8 billion a year business as people reach for anything on the shelf that could fix a funny nose.

It turns out all those people who say cold medicines aren't what they used to be are right.

"That's true," confirms Pharmacist Karen Powell, Parks Pharmacy.

Powell says it started when pseudoephedrine, a drug that used to be found in most over-the-counter decongestants (like Sudafed), was pushed behind the counter in 2006.

People were buying it in bulk to make meth.

"In an attempt to try to deter how much methamphetamine is made, they made it unavailable to people who get sick," Powell said.

To get pseudoephedrine, you must walk up to the counter, ask a pharmacist, show your driver's license and sign for it.

A federal database keeps track of how much you've bought each month.

If it's more than 9,000 mg, "I have to turn her down," Powell said. "I'm sorry, you've bought too much in the last period of time."

That means a mom buying for the whole family, "she'll have to send someone else in to get it for the family and she feels like a criminal."

So, now the drugs on the shelf have the ingredient phenylephrine.

A new study shows it just doesn't work.

"It's just not as effective," Powell agrees. "We have two choices right now for over-the-counter decongestants, and that's pseudoephedrine, which you have to go through literally an act of Congress to get, or phenylephedrine, which just isn't as effective."

The study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice tested 539 adults over a weeks time by giving them phenylephrine and found it's no better than a placebo.

"Maybe with all the studies that are coming out and the symptoms that are not being addressed and the patients that are not being helped, maybe it will be something we won't see on the market as long," Powell said.

The good news is if you're struggling to feel better, you do have some options.

Powell says there are some great over-the-counter antihistamines and nasal sprays like Flonase no longer need a prescription.

If you're having wet symptoms, like itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, Powell says an antihistamine is your best bet. Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec are all available over-the-counter. Benadryl is also a good option, but it can make you sleepy.

If you have that combined with coughing and you feel like you've got congestion in your chest, Powell says you can use Mucinex and Guaifenesin and a lot of water.

"Water and guaifenesin helps break up that mucus and get it out, but it's not a decongestant," Powell said.

That's where pseudoephedrine comes back in.

"You can ask for pseudoephedrine, but of course you have to present the ID and go through all that," Powell said.

Info from the FDA:

The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 has been incorporated into the Patriot Act signed by President Bush on March 9, 2006. The act bans over-the-counter sales of cold medicines that contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make methamphetamine. The sale of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine is limited to behind the counter. The amount of pseudoephedrine that an individual can purchase each month is limited and individuals are required to present photo identification to purchase products containing pseudoephedrine. In addition, stores are required to keep personal information about purchasers for at least two years.