Colds and flu

Updated 28 September 2017

Flu meds could damage your heart

Some over-the-counter flu medications have been shown to adversely affect the heart.

Just because some medication is available over the counter without a prescription does not mean it is free of significant side-effects.

Certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications used to alleviate the symptoms of colds and flu contain ingredients which have been linked to serious side-effects and damage to the heart.

Read: Take care with over-the-counter medication

In an article by The Sceptical Cardiologist, he strongly advises against using any medication which contains pseudoephedrine, an ingredient found in many OTC cold and flu decongestant medications.

Pseudoephedrine works as a decongestant by shrinking blood vessels in the nasal passages to alleviate nasal congestion, however it constricts blood vessels throughout the body, which increases your blood pressure.

It is often used in conjunction with other ingredients, and together these have been shown to have a negative effect on blood pressure in some people.

Some of the other ingredients in decongestants include:

-  Ephedrine

-  Levmetamfetamine

-  Naphazoline

-  Oxymetazoline

-  Phenylephrine

-  Phenylpropanolamine

-  Propylhexedrine

-  Pseudoephedrine

-  Synephrine

-  Tetrahydrozoline

According to the FDA, pseudoephedrine is safe when taken as directed; however this doesn’t disregard the risks associated with it,

some of which include heart attacks, strokes, disturbed heart rhythms, and other cardiovascular problems.

Commonly a "-D" at the end of a medicine's name means that the medicine includes an oral decongestant.

Who is at risk?

Decongestants are safe for most people to take, but due to the different types of decongestants and their different ingredients there are certain people who should be extra cautious when buying anything OTC.

These include people with:

-  Hypertension

-  Cardiovascular disease

-  Hyperthyroidism

-  Diabetes

This does not mean however that if you have any of the above conditions that you will have to suffer in silence with a blocked or runny nose or other cold and flu symptoms.

There are other alternatives available in the form of antihistamines or nasal sprays to relieve a stuffy nose which are safe for the heart as well as other OTC drugs for people with high blood pressure.

And if you prefer to avoid any form of medication you could try the following to alleviate your symptoms:

-  Nasal strips or chest rubs

-  Hot steamy showers

-  Hot fluids such as lemon and honey drinks

-  A humidifier in your bedroom

Read more: 

Know your symptoms 

over-the-counter drugs or antibiotics 

Make sense of cold and flu meds


The Skeptical Cardiologist

Over the counter medications and heart disease

SA Pharmaceutical Journal:

Are over-the-counter decongestants safe for your heart?:

Don’t let decongestants squeeze your heart:


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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