I’m sick. And, phenylephrine-based cold medicines are junk.

I’m sick.

On Thursday night, I started getting a sore throat.

By Friday, sore turned to scratchy-and-coughing.

On Saturday, congestion and sinus pain set in. I know it’s just that time of year, but I couldn’t help but feel a little irked that I was the one in our household who got sick. Not any of my kids, who spend five days a week in school boosting their immunity systems. Not my husband, who likely endures the same at his office.


“You probably got it from a shopping cart,” my mom helpfully pointed out. (She’s probably right.)

Regardless of how I got sick, one of the perks of being a couponer is that there are usually cold medicines and supplies on hand. Back in October, a bunch of Robitussin cold medicines were on clearance at Jewel for $1.74. With the $3 coupons that were out at the time, they were free and moneymakers, so they came home.

Over the past couple days, I’ve tried out all of the ones I brought home from that trip, and… they don’t work. This unplanned experiment has reaffirmed something I already knew: Phenylephrine-based over-the-counter cold medicines don’t do a darn thing to alleviate a stuffy nose.

In the good old days, you could head to any supermarket or pharmacy and grab a box of pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine off the shelf, and less than an hour later, you’d be breathing freely and feeling somewhat better. Pseudoephedrine works. Of course, it’s also a product that can be used to manufacture an illicit substance, so pseudoephedrine was regulated for behind-the-pharmacy counter distribution.

What did cold medicine manufacturers do? Well, they didn’t want consumers to not see their familiar brands and packaging in the cold medicine aisle. So, they replaced pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine. Phenylephrine is also a nasal decongestant — when administered intravenously. Unfortunately, when you take phenylephrine orally, studies have shown it breaks down and is as ineffective as a placebo against nasal decongestion. A 2006 study called phenylephrine completely ineffective when taken orally.

Yet, almost a decade after that study, brands continue to sell, promote, and market phenylephrine as an oral cold medicine.

After suffering for two days with products known to be “as effective as placebos,” my experiment is over. A trip to CVS for “the good stuff” revealed that they were sold out of pseudoephedrine-based Sudafed, but the CVS generic has the same ingredients. After taking the CVS pseudoephedrine and following it up with Excedrin, I am breathing through my nose again. Hooray for products that work!

Is it bad that I’m just keeping these things in the bed with me now? I’m so in love with Cool Touch Kleenexes too. I buy them whenever I spot a deal on them, and I keep them on hand for whoever might get sick. The combination of lotion + coldness on a sore nose is something my readers have raved about, and I agree. I’ve been appreciating them so much that I even sent some cyber-love to Kleenex this weekend:

To anyone else who might be suffering from whatever’s going around right now, trust me on these things:

  • Don’t waste your time on over-the-counter decongestants. Send someone to the pharmacy to bring you “the good stuff.”
  • Lotion-based tissues will save your nose. The Cool Touch Kleneex are a scientific marvel.
  • Use those sanitizer wipes that the grocery store provides for your shopping cart handle. (I should have.)


  1. Calibabydolly says

    but glad you found the GOOD STUFF! Your mom is probably right and you caught it from a cart BUT I was at Jewel the other day and the cashier was hacking all over everything! They should stay home and do us all a favor when they have a cold. Luckily she changed shifts right before I got up in line and the next cashier wiped down everything plus used the hand gel. You can get it anywhere. Especially when you handle all of your food and receipts and MONOPOLY tickets after the sick lady infected it all!

  2. NFriday says

    Hi- The last time I got sick last April though, when I went to CVS on a Sunday, the pharmacy had already closed for the day, and I was sick enough that I ended up buying something else because the sudafed wasn’t available. The next day I went to Osco and got some Sudafed, but they did not have generic Sudafed, and the name brand stuff cost me $10. I used to use Contact too, but I wonder if they changed the formula for that too. It does not seem to work as well.

  3. eztupp says

    sorry you are sick. when Meijer had the Robitussin deal I got some of the night time liquid. it worked great when I had the flu. my husband said it even stopped me from snoring.

  4. Ruby Red says

    I am totally with you. I will pass on something that my doctor once told me years ago. I was in for sinus pain thinking it was a sinus infection. He asked me what I was taking and I told him Advil Co-Sinus. He told me that was like getting a little bit of medicine for your headache and a little bit for the congestion. He suggested taking two pills of Sudafed and two pills of the Advil so you get the full strength of both. I have used this advice whenever I feel like you do and it has always served me well!

  5. sportnfood says

    The Kleenex Cool Touch tissues are AMAZING! Truly a scientific marvel! And a blessing for red stuffy noses!