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About These Medicines

Make sure you know about each of the medicines you take. This includes why you take it, how to take it, what you can expect while you're taking it, and any warnings about the medicine.

The information provided here is general. So be sure to read the information that came with your medicine. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.

What are some examples?

Here are some examples of decongestants. For each item in the list, the generic name is first, followed by examples of brand names.

  • oxymetazoline (Afrin)
  • phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine)
  • pseudoephedrine (such as in Sudafed)

Decongestants can be taken by mouth as a pill or liquid (oral). Or they can be used as nose drops, sprays, or gels. Sprays and drops provide rapid relief, but they should only be used for 2 to 3 days. Oral decongestants may cause more side effects than the ones used in the nose, but they can be taken for up to 7 days.

In some states, any medicine that contains pseudoephedrine is kept behind the pharmacist's counter, so you will need to ask the pharmacist for it. In other states, you need a prescription from your doctor to buy medicine that has pseudoephedrine.

Why are decongestants used?

Decongestants may help shrink swollen tissues in the nose, sinuses, and throat and in the space behind the eardrum (middle ear). This may relieve pressure, pain, and stuffiness (congestion).

What about side effects?

Common side effects of decongestants include:

  • A dry or irritated nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Nosebleeds.

Other side effects may include:

  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Dizziness.
  • Feeling anxious or over-excited.

Some of these medicines may not be safe for young children or people who have certain health problems.

Call your doctor if side effects bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking a medicine.

General information about side effects

All medicines can cause side effects. Many people don't have side effects. And minor side effects sometimes go away after a while.

But sometimes side effects can be a problem or can be serious.

If you're having problems with side effects, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may be able to lower your dose or change to a different medicine.

Always be sure you get specific information on the medicine you're taking. For a full list of side effects, check the information that came with the medicine you're using. If you have questions, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.

What are some cautions about decongestants?

Cautions for decongestants include the following.

  • Decongestants may not be safe for young children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not using over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in children younger than age 2. The FDA also recommends avoiding these medicines for children younger than age 4.footnote 1 If you use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and, in some cases, weight.
  • Decongestants can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, or an overactive thyroid. Decongestants may also interact with some drugs, such as certain antidepressants and high blood pressure medicines. Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose the best decongestant for you.
  • Don't use decongestant nasal sprays, drops, or gels more times in one day or for more days in a row than the label says. Overuse can cause rebound congestion. It makes your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor or pharmacist before you use a decongestant.

General cautions for all medicines

Allergic reactions.
All medicines can cause a reaction. This can sometimes be an emergency. Before you take any new medicine, tell the doctor or pharmacist about any past allergic reactions you've had.
Drug interactions.
Sometimes one medicine may keep another medicine from working well. Or you may get a side effect you didn't expect. Medicines may also interact with certain foods or drinks, like grapefruit juice and alcohol. Some interactions can be dangerous.
Harm during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
If you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding, ask your doctor or pharmacist if all the medicines you take are safe.
Other health problems.
Before taking a medicine, be sure your doctor or pharmacist knows about all your health problems. The medicine for one health problem may affect another health problem.

Always tell your doctor or pharmacist about all the medicines you take. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. That information will help prevent serious problems.

Always be sure you get specific information on the medicine you're taking. For a full list of warnings, check the information that came with the medicine you're using. If you have questions, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.



  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018). Use caution when giving cough and cold medicine to kids. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed July 6, 2023.


Current as of: September 25, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.