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What Are Decongestants?


Updated July 07, 2014

What Are Decongestants?

Do you need a decongestant?

Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Decongestants can be great to treat symptoms of your cold or flu. But they may not always be right for you.

What are Decongestants?

Decongestants are a type of medication that help clear up sinus and head congestion. They work by narrowing the blood vessels in the nose, decreasing swelling and inflammation allowing more air to flow and mucus to drain. Some common decongestants include:

  • Sudafed(TM) - pseudoephedrine (generic, active ingredient)
  • Sudafed PE(TM) - phenylephrine (generic, active ingredient)
  • Other medications, such as Tylenol Sinus(TM), Advil Cold and Sinus(TM) and Aleve Cold and Sinus(TM) may contain decongestants in addition to pain relievers


    Do They Work?

    Decongestants are considered relatively effective for minor congestion from viruses and other illnesses. If your illness has become an infection, they may not work as well. You may need antibiotics to treat the infection before the decongestants will work to clear the congestion.


      Who Should Not Use Decongestants?

      You should not give decongestants to children under 4 years old. Talk to your child's doctor first before giving them to children between the ages of 4 and 12.

      You should not take them if you have:

      • Kidney disease
      • Diabetes
      • Glaucoma
      • High blood pressure
      • Heart disease
      • Pregnant women or those who are trying to get pregnant
      • Women who are breastfeeding
      • Men with prostate problems

      You should always talk to your doctor about any medications you are on and possible interactions before taking a new medication, even if it is over the counter.


        Are There Any Side Effects?

        Some common side effects you may experience are:

        • Confusion or feeling nervous
        • Headaches
        • Nausea or vomiting
        • Loss of appetite

        More serious side effects that should be reported to your doctor immediately include:

        • Chest pain or heart palpitations
        • Dizziness or fainting
        • Numbness or pain in hands or feet
        • Difficulty breathing
        • Hallucinations
        • Bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain
        • Seizures


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