Decongestants may help shrink swollen tissues in the nose, sinuses, throat, and the space behind the eardrum (middle ear). This may relieve pressure, pain, and stuffiness (congestion).
Decongestants can be taken by mouth as a pill or liquid (oral) or used as nose drops, sprays, or gels. The oral kind provides longer relief but may cause more side effects than the ones that are used in the nose. Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief.
To know if an over-the-counter medicine contains a decongestant, check the label for the active ingredient. Examples of decongestants are:
- Oxymetazoline (such as in Afrin or Zicam Extreme Congestion Relief).
- Phenylephrine (such as in Neo-Synephrine or Sudafed PE).
- Pseudoephedrine (such as in Sudafed).
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 have to have a prescription from your doctor to buy medicine containing pseudoephedrine.
- Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Decongestants may not be safe for young children. If you use these medicines, always follow the directions about how much to use based on age and in some cases weight. Not everyone needs the same amount of medicine.
- 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.
- Drink extra fluids when you are taking cold and allergy medicines.
- 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, check with your doctor or pharmacist before using a decongestant.
For more information about medicine safety, see Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
Current as of: July 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Donald R. Mintz, MD, FRCSC - Otolaryngology