Topic Overview

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 are more convenient to take but may cause more side effects than the ones that are used in the nose. Sprays and drops provide rapid relief that may last up to 12 hours.

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 Claritin or Drixoral).
  • Phenylephrine (such as in Benylin or Sudafed PE).
  • Pseudoephedrine (such as in Sudafed).

Sprays and drops provide rapid relief that may last up to 12 hours. Otrivin (xylometazoline) is an effective nasal spray. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other medicines, which may be a problem with oral decongestants.

Decongestant precautions

    • Before you give oral decongestant medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6. If your child’s doctor tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do.
    • 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, enlarged prostate 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 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 nasal tissue 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.

Credits

Adaptation Date: 12/3/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Date: 12/3/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC