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Deciphering cold and flu medication labels

February 14, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
In the midst of this horrible flu season, what medicine works and what doesn't? It's easy to get confused if you're trying to pick up an over-the-counter remedy for relief. But Consumer Reports experts take a closer look to decode some of the labels.

Choosing medicine for a cold, flu, and other aches and pains can be overwhelming. Why is the drug aisle so confusing?

"The problem is labels like 'extra strength,' 'maximum strength' or 'ultra strength' really have no standard definition," said Consumer Reports Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Marvin Lipman.

Tums Ultra Strength has 100 percent more of its active ingredient than the regular version. But Gas-X Ultra Strength has 125 percent more of its active ingredient.

"The point is you really have to read the label in order to know how much you're taking," said Lipman.

Claims like "all day" and "long-acting" are tricky too. Aleve All Day Strong lasts up to 12 hours. But another brand lasts 24 hours.

And with drugs that promise to relieve multiple symptoms like a cold, flu and sore throat, you could end up taking something you don't need.

"Drugs that treat multiple symptoms often have more than one ingredient, sometimes as many as four," said Lipman.

So if you take another medicine that contains one of those ingredients, you might wind up taking too much.

Consumer Reports says best is choosing a single-ingredient drug whenever you can, like ibuprofen for aches and pains or acetaminophen for a fever or headache.

One more important note: Consumer Reports says drugs that say "p.m." or "non-drowsy" can be confusing too. If the label says "p.m.," it probably contains an antihistamine that'll help you fall asleep. But if the label says "non-drowsy," don't assume the drug will help you stay alert.


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