A Good Read: The Label on Your Cold Medicine




If you or someone you care about is among the nearly half of U.S. adults with high blood pressure, reading the label on your cold medicine and other over-the-counter treatments is important for your health.

The Danger

As cold and flu season take hold, many Americans will reach for cold medicines and pain killers at their local drug store. What they may not know, however, is that these medicines may have ingredients that increase blood pressure or increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Decongestants, a common ingredient in cold, flu and allergy medicines, can raise blood pressure, making it difficult to keep blood pressure in a healthy range. The American Heart Association says that people with high blood pressure should be aware of the medicines that can increase blood pressure or interfere with the effectiveness of their heart medicines.

A few decongestant names to look for include: phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine.

Recently, the FDA issued an advisory requiring new labels on prescription and non-prescription drugs commonly used for headaches, backaches, arthritis and even multisymptom cold remedies.

The new labels strengthen an existing warning that nonaspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke. It’s important to know that the increased risk of heart attack and stroke can occur within the first few weeks of taking an NSAID, and may increase with longer use and higher doses.

What to Do

First, you should know that high blood pressure increases your risk for such dangerous health conditions as heart attack, stroke, chronic (long-lasting) heart failure and kidney disease.

If you have high blood pressure you should read the labels of any prescription or non-prescription medicines you take. Some are labeled as safe for people with hypertension. On others, look for warnings for people with high blood pressure or those who take blood pressure medications. These products should be avoided, or used after a discussion with a medical professional.

Remember that you’re not alone in needing to take this precaution. If nearly half the people in the U.S. have high blood pressure, then all of those people should be reading labels to make sure their medicines are safe.

What Else Helps My Blood Pressure?

By living a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep your blood pressure in the proper range. Blood pressure is high when the top number (systolic) is 130-139 or the bottom number (diastolic) is 80-89. A healthy lifestyle includes:

  • Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, low in saturated and trans fats and salt.
  • Maintaining a proper weight: If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can reduce blood pressure.
  • Activity. Try for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or bicycling, every week.
  • Limiting alcohol use.
  • Measuring your blood pressure.

Because high blood pressure and prehypertension often have no symptoms, checking your blood pressure is the only way to know for sure whether it is too high. If you need cold and flu medicines, ask your doctor if you should check it more often.

If your doctor has prescribed blood pressure medication, take it. Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully and don’t hesitate to ask questions if you do not understand something.

Learn more about high blood pressure on heart.org.

Transcript of infographic: 

OTC Literacy

Understanding Your Cold Medicine Label

Active Ingredients: The ingredients in medicine that make it work.

Uses: Describes the symptoms that the medicine treats. 

Other Information: How to store the medicine and information about expiration and lot number.

Questions/Comments: Contact information for the company if you have questions about the medicine.

Warnings: Safety information including side effects, the questions you should ask a doctor before taking the medicine and which medicines to avoid using at the same time. 

Directions: Indicates the amount or dose of medicine to take, how often to take it, and how much you can take in one day. 

Inactive Ingredients: Ingredients ot intended to treat your symptoms (e.g., preservatives, coloring, flavoring)

The drug facts portion of your cold medicine label will help you understand the medicine that you're taking and how to take it safely. 


This article was updated on 10/30/2018 to reflect current statistics and changes in the Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults, A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. For more information related to these guidelines and managing your blood pressure, see The Ups and Downs of Blood Pressure

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