Don’t Waste Your Money: Decoding Over-The-Counter Flu Meds

Posted at 9:44 PM, Feb 19, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-19 21:44:03-05

It’s one of the worst flu seasons in years, but when you go to the drugstore for some relief, sorting through all of the options can make your headache worse. Consumer Reports has advice on over-the-counter medication for the flu and other ailments.

The problem is that claims such as “extra strength,” “maximum strength,” and “ultra strength” on labels have no standard definition.

Take ultra-strength Tums. It has 100 percent more of its active ingredient than the regular version. But Gas-X ultra-strength has 125 percent more of its active ingredient.
You really have to read the entire label in order to know how much you’re taking.

Claims like “all day” and “long acting” are tricky, too. All-Day Aleve lasts up to 12 hours. But some all-day medicine lasts 24 hours.

Drugs that say “PM” or “non-drowsy” can be confusing also. If the label says “PM,” the drug probably contains an antihistamine that’ll help you fall asleep. But if the label says “non-drowsy,” don’t assume the drug will help you stay alert. Only some have caffeine or another stimulant that’ll keep you awake.

And with drugs that claim to relieve multiple symptoms, such as cold and flu symptoms and sore throat, you could end up taking something you don’t need. They often have more than one ingredient, sometimes as many as four. So if you also take another medicine that contains one of those ingredients, you might wind up taking too much.

Consumer Reports says best is choosing a single-ingredient drug whenever you can, such as ibuprofen for aches and pains or acetaminophen for a fever or headache.

And when in doubt, check with a pharmacist for help understanding over-the-counter drug labels.