Terrible Timing, TBH

FYI, The FDA Just Deemed A Bunch Of Cold & Flu Meds “Ineffective”

Everything to know about phenylephrine, the decongestant that apparently doesn't actually work.

Originally Published: 
A mother gives her child a spoonful of cold and flu medicine.
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ICYMI, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Sept. 12 that phenylephrine, a decongestant found in 250 of the most common over-the-counter cold and flu medicines out there, is ineffective when taken orally in pill or liquid form.

The agency cited years of research that indicates the drug doesn’t actually help relieve congestion even though it’s the active ingredient in many of the most widely used OTC meds out there, including versions of Sudafed, Benadryl, Vicks DayQuil and NyQuil, Tylenol, Mucinex, and many others. They’re now working to determine whether or not it should be banned altogether, which would result in all these meds being pulled from store shelves and online inventory.

So, what gives? Are we supposed to be tossing all the decongestants in our medicine cabinets right smack in the middle of this current wave of COVID, flu, and god-knows-what-else the littles keep bringing home from school and daycare? And what are we supposed to use instead?

Here’s everything you should know.

Are we tossing everything out or what?

First, it’s worth pointing out that OTC meds with phenylephrine are not inherently unsafe, as Dr. Rajitha Julapalli, board-certified pediatrician at Pediatrix Urgent Care of Texas, tells Scary Mommy. But the FDA requires that medications are both “safe and effective,” which means phenylephrine might lose its designation simply because it does not work the way it should to ease or relieve congestion, says Julapalli.

Whether your household is currently battling the upper respiratory illness du jour or you’re preparing for something that will inevitably hit soon, it’s never a bad idea to check in with your family doctor, as they can steer you in the direction of OTC meds that are safe and effective for your kiddos.

That said, if your cold and flu med of choice does have phenylephrine and is not expired, it likely has other ingredients (such as antihistamines or pseudoephedrine) that can help ease symptoms in the adult and older kid population in your house. Short-term use of nasal sprays with phenylephrine will also be effective in alleviating symptoms — more on this in a minute.

What can little ones take that is “safe and effective”?

Curious about what babies, toddlers, and tweens can use that is both safe and effective? Here’s where you’ll need to be more mindful, says Julapalli. Phenylephrine “can cause increased heart rate, dizziness, headache, and upset stomach,” while its behind-the-counter counterpart pseudoephedrine “is not recommended for children under 6 years old, and some formulations not under 12 years old,” she notes.

“Cold and cough medications in general are not recommended in children under 6 years old as they can lead to accidental overdosing, as many of these products contain multiple medications,” she adds. “Dangerous side effects such as increased/irregular heart rates and seizures have been reported.”

It might sound alarming, but Julapalli adds, “With any medication, side effects are possible.” Even with OTC meds and supplements, you will want to check in with your doctor (or your kid’s pediatrician) before starting and if you experience any side effects or if your symptoms worsen.

As for what does work for the younger set, “saline drops and suctioning the nose with a bulb suction/NoseFrida can often help in infants and younger children,” says Julapalli. “In older children, saline sprays, teaching children to blow their nose well, and saline solutions with a clean Neti Pot are options. Cool mist humidifiers in the room or blowing their nose in a steamy shower/bathroom can help as well. It is best to consult with your pediatrician regarding any medications.”

Your doctor might recommend a children’s fever reducer or pain reliever to help ease pain, while breaking up mucus via saline options, nose blowing, or other nasal irrigation can help move things along faster.

Of course, ample rest, staying hydrated, and eating enough will also help with the recovery process, as miserable as it may be for you and everyone else in your household battling the cold and flu blues. And when all else fails, we don’t blame you for sitting in the Target parking lot for a few extra minutes with your illness recovery arsenal in hand if you want to scream, cry, sing, or simply take a few deep breaths before heading back into the belly of the congested beast. You’ve got this, friend.

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