Sinus medicine is available in a few basic types, including decongestants, pain medications, expectorants, anti-histamines, and cough suppressants. Each has a different purpose and different risks. Often, sinus and cold medications come in a combination of these types.
A decongestant is a medication that works by opening the nasal passages by constricting blood vessels. This helps the sinuses to drain, but can also elevate blood pressure, cause an irregular or rapid heart beat, or cause insomnia. Decongestants come in pill and nasal spray form; typically, nasal sprays should be used for no more than a few days and strictly according to label recommendations, otherwise addiction may occur. Decongestants can decrease insulin requirements, so diabetics should take care when using this medication. If taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors or anti-Parkinson medications, a person should use caution as decongestants can cause serious and dangerous reactions.
Many types of sinus medicine contain acetaminophen and fall into the pain medication category. The purpose of these medications is to reduce pain and fever. When taking sinus medications that contain acetaminophen, caution should be used to avoid also taking other pain medications containing acetaminophen — this can help to prevent overdose of the medication. An overdose can damage the liver and, over long periods of time, damage the kidneys as well. These medications typically should not be mixed with other pain medications.
Another type of sinus medicine is an expectorant. This medication helps with chest congestion by loosening thick mucus, thereby making it easier to cough up phlegm. There are no likely major side effects for this medication, though minor side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, and trouble sleeping, can occur.
An anti-histamine is a sinus medicine intended for use against an allergy rather than a cold. It typically decreases mucus production and dries up a runny nose; the most common side effect is drowsiness. Cough suppressants are a category of sinus medicine that suppresses the cough reflex in the throat and lungs to avoid coughing triggered by mucus and irritation. It can be better to allow the coughing to continue so that mucus will be expelled, so cough suppressants usually should be used in moderation. The most likely side effect is drowsiness, but in case of overdose or abuse, more serious harm can occur.
Cold and sinus medications generally should not be given to children under four years of age. These medications typically only treat the symptoms of colds and allergies, so the child generally gets better in time with or without them. If symptoms persist for more than a week, a doctor usually should be consulted.
There are many alternative and fully natural treatments that can be used instead of medication. Steam can help loosen stuffy noses and chest congestion, which can help the sufferer cough up or blow out mucus. Eucalyptus or lavender oil in a steam treatment can help clear up congestion faster, and sleeping upright usually will make breathing easier. It can be important for a person to blow his or her nose frequently in order to get mucus out of the system, and the affected person should drink twice as much liquid as normal. Vapor rubs on the chest usually work well overall, though children should be observed in case the vapors are too strong for them.