Cold and flu season is here, which means that you might be stumbling into the “cold and allergy” aisle of the nearest store, trying to sort out which remedy is the best choice between sneezes. What does “non-drowsy” mean on a medicine bottle? Terms like “AM,” “PM,” and “maximum strength” aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which can lead to bleary-eyed confusion when you’re sick.
Fortunately, our colleagues down the hall at Consumer Reports are effective all day long, and they’ve clarified some terms that you might see on a box or bottle and what they might in practical terms.
The “Quil” family of medicines has since become so complex that we have an entire post explaining the differences between DayQuil, NyQuil, ZzzQuil, QlearQuil, and QuilQuil. (That last one isn’t real. Yet.)
Here are some terms you might see, and what they mean in real life:
Non-drowsy: This means that the medication doesn’t contain any ingredients that will make you sleepy. That doesn’t mean that the medication contains any stimulants that will work to keep you awake when you’re feeling sick and sleepy. While the decongestant pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) might make you more alert, it also might not.
PM or Nighttime: Medicines with this label have an ingredient that may have the effect of making you sleepy, which can be useful when congestion, coughing, or pain make it hard to sleep. It’s usually an older antihistamine like diphenhydramine or doxylamine. Depending on these drugs long-term can disrupt your sleep and cause other health problems: avoid them if you take medication to regulate your blood pressure, and stay away from alcohol. For multi-symptom medicines designed for nighttime use, pay attention to what active ingredients it contains: if there’s already a painkiller/fever reducer included in the formula, don’t take another one.
AM or Daytime: These can simply be the same brand of medicine as the version designed for nighttime use, only without ingredients that make you sleepy. Or they could actually include caffeine. As with all multi-symptom medicines, check the back of the package to see what’s actually in it before you add any other
Migraine: Here’s a case where you should pay attention to the back of the package. Excedrin Extra Strength and Excedrin Migraine have identical amounts of active ingredients, but the dosing information (especially the maximum number of pills) differs.
Overall, the best piece of advice is to compare different medications by looking at the back of the package, not at the words on the front.
What’s The Difference Between All The Many NyQuil Variations?
13 Medications You May Not Realize Contain Acetaminophen
Fun With Reading Labels: What Does “Extra Strength” Actually Mean?
What over-the-counter drug labels really mean [Consumer Reports]

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.