“Cold medicine so strong you have to ask your pharmacist for it,” boomed an ad I heard recently over the loudspeaker in my drugstore. While consumers are long used to the distinction between prescription and over-the-counter medicines, many are still unaware of a federal law that went into effect in September 2006. It requires customers to show identification and sign a log when they purchase cold medicines, such as Comtrex Day/Night Flu Therapy and Sudafed, and other products that include the common decongestant pseudoephedrine. Drugstores are keeping the medicines either in the pharmacy
section or behind the cash register counter so they can collect the mandated information.
The reason pseudoephedrine is now sold in a controlled fashion is that it can be used to make the illegal and very dangerous drug methamphetamine, or crystal meth. Keeping tabs on who is buying large quantities of medicines with pseudoephedrine is a lawenforcement—not a consumer-protection—measure, despite what the ads may imply.
Several manufacturers have substituted phenylephrine for pseudoephedrine so their product can be sold on open store shelves. But the evidence, including a thorough review published in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy in March, shows that oral phenylephrine doesn’t work. So if you need an oral decongestant, ask your pharmacist for pseudoephedrine. Check with your doctor before taking cold medicine with either ingredient if you have anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, hyperthyroidism, or take other drugs. Children under age 2 should not be given any cough or cold medication at all. —Ronni Sandroff, Director of Health Information
Find out more about the common cold and find out which treatments are most likely to work for you in our Treatment Ratings (available to subscribers of ConsumerReportsMedicalGuide.org).