Are Over-The-Counter Cold Medicines Safe for Your Heart?

By (BI) Paul Temple

BOSTON -- Few people who take over-the-counter decongestants heed the warning label: "Do not use this product if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, diabetes, or difficulty in urination due to enlargement of the prostate gland unless directed by a doctor." New changes in many cold medicines make this a particularly good time to start paying attention to it, according to the November issue of the Harvard Heart Letter.

Pseudoephedrine, the old standby found in Sudafed and hundreds of other over-the-counter decongestants, can raise blood pressure. In most people the increase is small, and millions of people use it each year with no trouble.

Over the years, though, there have been reports of heart attacks, strokes, disturbed heart rhythms, and other cardiovascular problems with use of pseudoephedrine. Now, in response to laws that make it less convenient to buy pseudoephedrine, some companies are replacing this ingredient with phenylephrine, a decongestant traditionally used in nasal sprays.

Few studies have looked at the impact of phenylephrine on the heart and blood pressure, and its effect on the heart remains to be seen, said the Heart Letter.

Most people can take an over-the-counter decongestant without a hitch. If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, talk with your doctor first, or try a remedy that doesn't contain decongestants, said the Harvard Heart Letter.

Alternative remedies include: antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Chlor-Trimeton or Coricidin HBP (chlorpheniramine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), and Claritin (loratadine); Breathe Right nasal strips; a steamy shower or a hot towel wrapped around the face; and certainly drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot beverages.

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