What cold medicines contain alcohol?

Written by phyllis zorn
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What cold medicines contain alcohol?
Many cold, flu and allergy medicines contain alcohol. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alcohol serves an important purpose in many over-the-counter and prescription medications, but some people wish or need to avoid alcohol. That can be tricky when it comes to treating a cough, cold, flu or allergy. Paying careful attention to the remedies you buy and asking questions of your pharmacist can help if you wish to avoid alcohol in your medicine.

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Why is alcohol in there?

Alcohol is used in medications both as a solvent and a preservative, according to Naturopathic Doctor Francis Brinker, assistant clinical professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, AZ. Alcohol dissolves ingredients that are difficult for water to dissolve, keeping the compounds from settling to the bottom of the bottle. In formulas where the medicinal compounds are readily water-soluble, alcohol is often added as a preservative, Brinker said.

Which medicines contain alcohol?

Medicines that come in liquid forms are the ones likely to contain alcohol, and the volume of alcohol can range from as low as 1 per cent to as high as 25 per cent in night-time cold remedies. While any liquid medicine labeled "elixir" by definition contains alcohol, most are not quite that easy to identify. Besides cough syrups, other liquid medicines used in treating cold, allergy and flu symptoms can contain alcohol, including antihistamines, decongestants, liquid forms of fever reducer and pain reliever, expectorants and the like. Alcohol is also found in mouthwash and gargle sometimes used by cold sufferers to relieve a sore throat. Both prescription and over-the-counter medicines can contain alcohol, and if alcohol is an ingredient, it must be listed on the label of over-the-counter medications. Your pharmacist can tell you if alcohol is found in your prescription medicine. One way to make sure your medicine contains no alcohol is to use a tablet or capsule form.

What harm can the alcohol do?

Some people prefer to avoid the use of alcohol for philosophical or religious reasons. Others need to avoid alcohol for medical reasons, such as recovering alcoholics. People who use prescription Antabuse risk serious illness from ingesting even small amounts of alcohol.

Which formulas contain alcohol?

Although there is no comprehensive list of all medications that contain alcohol, alcohol abuse treatment facilities sometimes make lists of common medicines that contain alcohol. Meriter Health Systems, Madison, WI, has compiled a list of the alcohol content of common medicines. So has West Baltimore Alcoholics Anonymous.

Common OTC medications containing alcohol

Many common and widely-used cold, flu and allergy medications contain alcohol. These include liquid Theraflu, Tylenol Cold and Flu, Anti-Tuss DM Expectorant, Benedryl, Benedryl Decongestant, Cheracol, Contact Severe Cold, Dimetapp, Dristan Cough, Dristan Ultra, Formula 44 and Formula 44 D, Nyquil, Pertussin, Robitussin AS, Robitussin CF, Robitussin DAC, Robitussin PE, Robitussin DM, Sudafed Cough Syrup, Cotylenol, Novahistine Cough, Novahistine Cough and Cold, Novahistine DM, Novahistine DMX, Triaminic Expectorant, Vicks Cough, Wal-Act and Wal-Phed.

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