A Guide to the Best OTC Medications According to Illness

By Allison Drinnon – January 14, 2022

Sniffles, sneezes and soreness plague our bodies whenever we fall ill, but a trip to the urgent care or a doctor may not always be warranted or affordable. Over-the-counter medications and remedies may help alleviate the sickly symptoms, but many people do not know what to take. Here is a round-up of all the different types of medications for various symptoms.

Cold and Flu

Woman Lying on Bed While Blowing Her Nose.


Decongestants work to alleviate the swelling of blood vessels and nasal tissue. There are three main types of decongestants that work in very similar ways: oxymetazoline, phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Common decongestants with oxymetazoline include Afrin, Dristan and Vicks Sinex. Those with phenylephrine include Sudafed PE and Suphedrine PE, while those with pseudoephedrine include Silfedrine, Sudafed and Suphedrin. The “PE” addition indicates a lower dosage of around 10 milligrams.

Runny Nose:

Antihistamines serve as the best ingredient to help fight a runny nose by targeting histamines that cause runny noses and watery eyes. The two most common forms of antihistamines are diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, but these can cause drowsiness. Benadryl contains diphenhydramine and Chlor-Trimeton contains chlorpheniramine. Other medications help reduce the drowsiness side effect through targeted treatment with ingredients such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra). 


Person Holding Thermometer.

Fever-reducers can be found in two forms: acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Acetaminophen (Tylenol), as scientists currently understand it, works both as a pain-reliever and fever-reducer by temporarily changing the way the brain senses pain and cooling the body down. NSAIDs block the body’s production of prostaglandin, a chemical that promotes inflammation and fever. The three types of NSAIDs are ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), aspirin and naproxen (Aleve).


Cough medications are either expectorants or suppressants. Expectorants thin mucus in the lungs for the body to more easily cough it out, making it a good choice for those with other cold- and flu-like symptoms. The only FDA-approved expectorant is guaifenesin, which can be found in Robitussin, Mucinex and other multi-symptom medications. Suppressants help suppress the urge to cough. The most common suppressant is dextromethorphan, which can be found in Delsym and Robitussin Cough.

Sore Throat:

Sore throats can originate from sicknesses like the cold, flu or bacterial infections (which require prescribed antibiotics). One path of treatment is taking a pain-reliever such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen. Another route would be taking numbing medications like Chloraseptic sprays and throat lozenges (Cepacol or Halls) that contain the numbing agents of benzocaine, menthol and phenol. Sore throats can also be treated with antihistamines or demulcents (cough drops and more) which coat the throat with a soothing film. Home remedies include gargling saltwater, consuming honey, using a humidifier and staying hydrated.

Allergic Reactions:

Allergens trigger the body to react to foreign substances and produce histamines that cause allergy symptoms. Mild to moderate allergic reactions often appear as cold and flu symptoms that can be treated as such (see above). Skin allergies can be treated with topical corticosteroid creams or tablets that contain steroids that reduce inflammation and itching, moisturizing creams, bite or sting medications and ice packs that reduce inflammation.

Bodily Pains

Body Aches, Headaches and Migraines:

Female student suffering from headache at home.

Over-the-counter pain-reliever medications will include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin and/or naproxen (see Fever medications above). Another common yet surprising ingredient in migraine medication is caffeine. Inflammation and the widening of blood vessels may cause migraines and caffeine narrows those blood vessels. Most migraine medications like Excedrin use a combination of pain-relievers, aptly named a migraine cocktail. 


Heartburn occurs when the content of the stomach flows back up into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation due to the stomach acids. Over-the-counter heartburn medications have three forms: antacids, Histamine-2 (H2) blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Antacids (Mylanta, Rolaids or Tums) change the stomach acid to prevent the burning sensation. H2 blockers reduce the amount of acid the stomach produces with ingredients like cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid Complete or Pepcid AC)  or nizatidine (Axid AR). Over-the-counter PPIs treat frequent heartburn within a short amount of time by reducing stomach acid production with some of the following ingredients: lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR), esomeprazole (Nexium 24HR), omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec OTC) and omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate (Zegerid OTC). However, PPIs should not be used as regular or daily medication.

If you experience any bodily pain, migraines or heartburn outside of your usual or if you experience severe pain, please contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Stomach Issues


Nausea treatments extend to both medications and home remedies. Medications for nausea work in a variety of ways. Bismuth subsalicylate, found in Pepto-Bismol, protects the lining of the stomach and reduces excess stomach acid. Antiemetics including dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and phosphorated carbohydrate (Emetrol) block receptors in the gut that trigger nausea. Dimenhydrinate is also an antihistamine alongside meclizine hydrochloride (Dramamine Less Drowsy) that focuses on nausea due to allergies and motion sickness. Home remedies include bland food, cannabinoids, ginger, aromatherapy and more.


Most diarrhea occurrences do not require treatment. Instead, two types of medications work for diarrhea. Loperamide (Imodium) allows your body to absorb more consumed liquids by slowing the digestive process. Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol) reduces stomach acids and helps balance the flow of fluids and food in the digestive tract. In addition, staying hydrated is important when experiencing diarrhea since the body expels lots of fluid.


Constipation occurs when bowel movements become more difficult and less frequent. Laxatives are the most common treatment for mild constipation and come in many forms that do different things. Bulk-forming laxatives (fiber supplements) pull fluid into the intestines to make stool softer and bulkier and help the body contract the intestinal muscles. Types of bulk-forming laxatives include psyllium (Metamucil or Konsyl), calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon) and methylcellulose fiber (Citrucel). Lubricants coat the stool to allow it to pass through smoother. The most common laxative lubricant is mineral oil, which often comes in the form of an enema. Osmotic or saline laxatives help the intestines retain fluid. Osmotic laxatives include magnesium hydroxide (Phillips Milk of Magnesia), magnesium citrate (Citroma), polyethylene glycol (MiraLAX), sodium phosphate (Fleet Saline Enema) and glycerin (Fleet Glycerin Suppository). Stimulant laxatives trigger the intestinal muscles to contract and the main two types include bisacodyl (Dulcolax) and senna/sennoside (Senokot). Stool softeners add water and fat to the stool. The most common stool softener is docusate (Colace, DulcoEase or Surfak). Combination medications typically combine a stool softener and a stimulant laxative such as docusate-sodium-senna (Senokot-S or Peri-Colace).

If symptoms persist for longer than expected or usual, please contact your doctor. Stay informed and stay healthy!


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