Articles, Blog

How Does Cold Medicine Work?

January 17, 2020

[♩INTRO ] Ahh, winter. The leaves have fallen, the breeze is chilly…
and cold season has arrived. When that sticky cough and sniffly nose hits,
you probably cozy up with some hot soup, a box of tissues, and your favorite brand of
cold medicine. There are syrups, pills, and vaporizers to
treat about every symptom your cold can bring, and they all involve some cool chemistry. But before you down that bitter syrup, it
might also help to know that not every cold medicine is as effective as you’d think. Colds are some of the most common infectious
diseases we can get, but since they’re caused by more than 200 different viruses, it’s
been basically impossible for us to create a vaccine against them. So the best we can do for now is fight the
symptoms. Most cold symptoms are probably caused by
your body’s efforts to fight off the virus, not the virus itself. When you catch a cold, inflammatory proteins
like cytokines, get released and tell your immune cells to get to work fixing the problem. Mainly, they do this by dilating your blood
vessels so that infection-fighting white blood cells can move around more easily. Unfortunately, in your nose, those dilated
blood vessels also lead to tissue swelling and congestion. Cytokines also interact with pain receptors
in your esophagus, which can cause a sore throat. And in the nervous system, they can stimulate
various nerves to trigger a runny nose, sneezing and coughing. None of those things are especially fun — okay,
really, they kind of stink. So we’ve come up with all kinds of drugs
to knock them down as much as possible. When your nose is stuffed up, you’ll probably
reach for a decongestant to clear up your sinuses. Pseudoephedrine is a popular one, found in
medications like Sudafed Decongestant and Aleve D. It’s a carbon ring attached to a complex
chain of other atoms, including nitrogen and oxygen. It reduces congestion by binding to receptors
in your nose, which makes the muscles around your blood vessels tense up and reduces the
extra blood flow caused by cytokines. Unfortunately, since pseudoephedrine is a
stimulant, it can also can cause insomnia, nervousness, dizziness, and even affect your
heart rate. It’s even been used Breaking Bad-style to
make methamphetamines illegally, which is why it’s kept behind the pharmacy counter. Phenylephrine is a similar medicine, found
in brands like Sudafed PE, but since it can’t be used to make meth, it’s easier to buy. Unfortunately, several studies have also found
that it doesn’t seem to be any more effective than a placebo, which means it probably doesn’t
do much. So, if that’s your favorite decongestant…
sorry. Some colds can also cause chest congestion
and coughing. To clear out some of that mucus, many medications
contain an expectorant, which helps you spit up those lovely green gobs of phlegm. ***The most common one is called guaifenesin,
which is a carbon ring attached to chains of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms. It’s found in medicines like Mucinex. We’re not entirely sure why it works, but
scientists think it suppresses the production of mucins, one of the main proteins in the
mucus lining your lungs. That makes it easier for specialized cells
to move mucus up and out of your body. Still, that’s just based on research done
in a lab. In patients, scientists have found that guaifenesin
does seems to help thin mucus, but it might not be that effective at clearing it from
your lungs. Some studies haven’t found much of an improvement
over a placebo in people with respiratory infections. But at least we know it helps somehow. Now, maybe the most irritating symptom of
a cold — for you and everyone around you — is that nasty, lasting cough. To help calm it, many medications, including
Robitussin, contain a cough suppressant, like dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan and molecules like it are
made up of four carbon rings, along with some oxygen and nitrogen atoms. They’re derived from morphine, a highly-addictive
painkiller, but at the doses used in cold medicines, they don’t have the same potential
for abuse. We’re not 100% sure how these molecules
work, but they probably work on the brain instead of the respiratory system. When you take dextromethorphan, it crosses
the blood-brain barrier — the tightly-woven net of cells in your brain’s blood vessels
that protect it from bacteria and infection. And once it’s there, it affects a bunch
of different receptors. Researchers think that it helps reduce coughing
by binding to receptors for neurotransmitters called NMDA, sigma-1, and serotonin, since
other drugs that bind to them also seem to suppress coughing. Mainly, this tricks your brain into thinking
there’s no tickle in your throat and that you don’t really need to cough. Then again, some recent studies have also
found that dextromethorphan may not actually be that effective, at least in kids, although
many studies don’t seem to be that reliable. Outside of cold medicine, though, it does
have some uses. Because of its effects on the nervous system,
it’s also being investigated for use in a bunch of different conditions, like treating
anxiety and agitation in Alzheimer’s disease — which is really cool. Still, effective or not, all of these medications
only treat the symptoms of the cold. None of them actually do anything to help
kill the virus or boost your immune system — except maybe by helping you sleep better. Ultimately, the only thing that can cure a
cold is time! But these medicines will hopefully make things
easier while you wait it out. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! Besides over-the-counter medicines, you’ve
probably heard how vitamin C or zinc can help stop a cold — but that’s not true. And if you’d like to learn more, you can
watch our episode all about it to find out why. [♩OUTRO ]


  • Reply Szymon Szabliński December 22, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    I just eat garlic and it works for me

  • Reply SwordLily December 22, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    The most useful thing that is a medication when I have a cold is Ricola. An aching throat and a cough are the worst.

    If I really can't get to sleep or get any good sleep, usually from being in pain or fever insomnia, I'll take Nyquil to get a nice(r) rest. I try to only do this once. I really prefer monitoring my symptoms, therefore not being able to push my body past its limits because I am feeling sick, and letting a small fever do its work. I don't know if it helps you get better faster, but it definitely makes me feel better spending most of my time resting like I should instead of trying to function normal.

    If I push myself, I'll feel better for a while and then I'll be really sick. Moreover, I probably neglected all the eating, drinking, and blowing my nose I should be doing.

    For the congestion, I really prefer making sure I sleep and sit in a way that lets them drain and a combination of sticking my face in a sink filled with hot water, blowing my nose, and applying a cold washcloth to my forehead. This is mostly because most decongestants make me dizzy and unfocused, actually sometimes I literally can't feel my legs, and a big problem for me with the swelling can be comfortably closing my eyes, but I honestly think it works better than them. You're getting the mucus out of your sinuses instead of just trying to not make them hurt. To be fair, I don't typically get persistent runny noses, so if I unclog my head I'm fine.

  • Reply bananasEveryday December 22, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    You know they waited to post this right as flu season started.

  • Reply Vir Animus December 22, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    How does cold medicine work? It doesn’t.

  • Reply itsasin1969 December 22, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Other than the expectorant and dulling the pain, aren't we just defeating our own bodies defences by treating the symptoms?

  • Reply Kagwanja Kariuki December 22, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Not everything in the world is worth making a video on. I understand you're trying to cover a varied group of topics and make them interesting but sometimes it's destined to be a fruitless endeavor. I don't give a flying f*** about the chemicals in cold medicines and, judging by the number of views, likes, and the like to dislike ratio, most of your viewers agree with me. I understand not all science is 'cool' but it seems you went out of your way to find boring, irrelevant things to talk about. Your community deserves better than this and they're willing to wait so try harder next time.

  • Reply Nume Moon December 22, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    I'd like to see some kind of SciShow about drugs/chemistry. Pharmacology alone has a rainbow of antiinflammatories, antihistamines, antidepressants, antibiotics, antacids, painkillers, pills for cholesterol, anxiety, sleep, sex, irregularity, vitamins, supplements, and then there are legal/illegal intoxicants all piled on top of Caffeinated Sugar Beverage Mountain.

  • Reply Lucid Focks December 23, 2017 at 12:03 am

    That nose knows. It is pointing the way to knowledge!

  • Reply Joku Toinen December 23, 2017 at 1:00 am

    The only effective cold medicine I have found so far has been booze. Dark rum or brandy or vodka or whisky or whatever you like best, all equally good as long as they are at least 80 proof. Dosage? Whatever is sufficient to knock the patient out. If the symptoms continue the next day, reapply the cure.

  • Reply sinephase December 23, 2017 at 1:20 am

    activity, nourishment and sleep gets rid of colds faster and reduces their severity

  • Reply Coppertunes December 23, 2017 at 1:41 am

    The symptoms are your own bodies reactions to fighting the cold virus, like fever is applied by your body to fry the virus, runny nose and coughs and sneezes are used to expel the virus. If you use medicines to stop these symptoms then you just prolong the cold virus within your body. Your best bet is a hot whisky to help you sleep, hit your bed and let your body do its thing.

  • Reply Nick K December 23, 2017 at 5:06 am

    Please use a lint roller on your shirt before shooting, if you plan to wear black next time 😀

  • Reply Zandandido December 23, 2017 at 5:16 am

    Why does taking a Zinc supplement help? Or Vitamin C?

  • Reply Zeratul297 December 23, 2017 at 5:22 am

    what I did for my cough was drink boiling hot soup and tea. swallow it hot. it burned like hell but within a few hours and 4 cups I felt fine and no more coughing.

  • Reply Laura Simmons December 23, 2017 at 5:54 am

    A: It doesn't.

  • Reply SevSaint December 23, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Healthy Gut bacteria.

  • Reply ariel p December 23, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I take nothing when I am ill. I just drink water and sleep under a blanket. After 24 hours I am healthy

  • Reply Jinsi K December 23, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Wow compared to kindergarten teacher at Psyshow Olivia is pretty tame and natural.

  • Reply Ruben Ebenhoch December 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    The only thing that can cure a cold is…(I was waiting for something new a drug or something) time😥

  • Reply Lady.Whatever December 23, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Who is currently sick?? 🤧🤒


  • Reply undertakersarmpit December 23, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    TAMIFLU (or TAMINFLU) helps

  • Reply ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ December 23, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Or just make your body stronger naturally and never suffer colds again.

  • Reply Saftcore H December 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Most be amazing having a cold with a nose piercing (no offense).

  • Reply Brooke Console December 23, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    I mean I'd think you would just put it in the refrigerator

  • Reply Alan December 23, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    watched this yesterday and guess what, i catched a cold, ugh runny nose, sneezing and coughing.

  • Reply Aaron Gris December 23, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    What if you swallow the mucus that comes out your mouth

  • Reply eric downing December 24, 2017 at 12:05 am

    DXM had less potential for abuse? Tell that to my high school aged self.

  • Reply Sanjivan Loganathan December 24, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Cold medicines are an effective way of screwing over your body on a battle with a virus. Antibiotics are an effective way of cultivating super bacteria we won’t be able to fight. Vaccines are better than all of them. They are a solution.

  • Reply Voshmir December 24, 2017 at 7:56 am

    it warms your body up, stupid. I don't need you bulshit science, nothing but lies, man…

  • Reply jimbo111589 December 24, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Is there a legal way to make methamphetamine?

  • Reply NoTjUsThUmAn December 24, 2017 at 8:17 am

    Olivia is my cold medicine.

  • Reply Beeholdify December 24, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    Uhh it's not winter here

  • Reply W S December 25, 2017 at 12:20 am

    Actually, the key is dropping a high body temperature back to normal with a fever reducer in order for your body to fight the illness better.

  • Reply Vinnidict Vulka December 25, 2017 at 12:49 am

    The same as room temperature medicine i guess

  • Reply markus eermann December 25, 2017 at 1:05 am

    What about Xylometazoline(Otrivin), Every time I have a cold, I just pull up on a nearest gas station and buy a canister, 1 spray to each side of the nose and the swelling in the nose is gone, like the cold doesnt even exist. It cant be used more than a week though, but by that time, the cold is almost gone. Its a must have if you need to be productive and have to work for example. You guys dont have that in the States? Its a wonderdrug when it comes to cold.

  • Reply Julian Miguel Cac December 25, 2017 at 2:44 am

    Research Hydrogenized Water pls

  • Reply Greer Fried December 25, 2017 at 4:11 am

    Thankfully, I got my annual cold out of the way a few weeks ago.

  • Reply Mai el-wakil December 25, 2017 at 11:55 am

    I have a question. How come when you have a cold you have to continuously blow your nose like every five minutes, but when you're asleep, although you're not breathing from your mouth, you don't have to blow your nose that often, actually you hardly blow it at all. And then when you wake up the cycle begins again and you have to blow your nose continuously all over again. What happens to your body when you're asleep and you have a cold, that makes your nose less irritant to you?

  • Reply Adam Knowles December 25, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    It makes you warm, so you're not cold

  • Reply Satyajeet Panchal December 25, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    It means doctor not only tell you to lie on bed for medicine but they also tell you the lie about medicine. 😤😤😤

  • Reply Lilly Bell December 25, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    What I want to know is if all these medicines are using the same drugs, why are there different brands?

  • Reply Vincent Jack December 26, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    wow, amazing video.

  • Reply acon571 December 26, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    I haven't been sick for about 2 years. Thank god it really sucks. I guess my immune system is just really strong.

  • Reply arodreth December 26, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    YAY OLIVIA !!!! <3<3<3<3<3

  • Reply IPlaySuperNes u? December 26, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    Just use paracetamol, ibuprofen and a medicated lozenge for headache, muscle ache and sore throat. For a runny nose i just stick tissue in my nose.

  • Reply red nasorwerd December 27, 2017 at 1:48 am

    i hate when people say "methamphetamines" like there is more than one…i mean there are 2 enantiomers but cooks make d methamphetamine with next to no levo methamp

  • Reply Brooke Lee December 27, 2017 at 2:39 am

    I just take a bunch of sleeping medicines. Cant be bothered by symptoms if youre unconscious for 16 hours straight

  • Reply aman bk December 27, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    if you stay in the shower too long, why do you sneeze?

  • Reply Jake Patterson December 28, 2017 at 12:13 pm


  • Reply Daniel Hood December 29, 2017 at 12:39 am


  • Reply Rani Hulen December 29, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    The part about cough medicine makes so much more sense to me now. I've been told never to take cough medicine while on psychiatric meds, and now I know why!

  • Reply Tom Mroz December 30, 2017 at 2:17 am

    Garlic is the answer.

    In evening shortly before going to sleep:

    Crash raw garlic. Leave it for 5-10min, so juice from garlic will turn into Allicin. Eat it after brushing your teeth, then do not drink or eat or spit out anything. Just go straight to bed and sleep. You will feel discomfort for 10-15min. In a morning you will be fine – just a bit smelly but it will evaporate quickly.

    I practice this many years already. I forgot what real cold is.

  • Reply Stefan Hundhammer December 31, 2017 at 12:36 am

    Wow, she lost (most of) her valley girl speech pattern. I am impressed.

  • Reply venice bitchツ January 1, 2018 at 9:32 am

    0:05 I'M FALLING SO I'M TAKING MY TIME ON MY RIDE (idk why it came to my head lmao ignore me)

  • Reply John King January 4, 2018 at 3:08 am


  • Reply Davon Stevens January 4, 2018 at 6:14 am

    My only symptoms now are just a stuffy nose and running nose. Doesn't seem bad right? Think again. Both nostrils a completely stuffed, no air in or out, can't even blow my nose or I'll pop my ear drum. To make it worse both nostrils are also running, while completely stuffed. I have to breath through my mouth. Imagine trying to sleep though that. I've taken some DayQuil but it doesn't work. Both nostrils still stuffed and running.

  • Reply otepmeimban January 7, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Am i the only one bothered by the black sticks keeping her eyes open? Coz that is definitely what it looks like

  • Reply cameron Gibbs January 8, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    Google Shake and Bake lol

  • Reply Micha Grill January 9, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Why did I read "gold medicine" the whole time? Lol And it got supported by the thumbnail as well… XD

  • Reply 1x1by1 January 12, 2018 at 8:12 pm


  • Reply Zander Rossman January 14, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Where not quite sure how it works, but it probably… (3:37)
    can be used to describe most molecules lmao

  • Reply penguin February 5, 2018 at 1:23 am

    I have a cold rn *sniffles

  • Reply Zestric February 5, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    Just go the the chemists and get yourself some aspirin. Boom there you go: Pseudoephedrin without a prescription

  • Reply ihartevil February 5, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    from what i know it doesnt work and if you use it then you get more sick later on in life because your body cant fight off any bacteria and other things it needs to because it has become dependent on meds

    thx for this ha bisky vid also over the counter stuff doesnt have the ingredients it claims as well a good amount of the time

  • Reply Jane Barbhuiya February 6, 2018 at 7:45 am


  • Reply TEAM BEIBER MUSICS February 7, 2018 at 6:44 am

    Very good

  • Reply Proplect February 10, 2018 at 3:50 am

    hey codeine is preeetty good

  • Reply I need a username February 19, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    Dextromethorphan is still abusiable

  • Reply 1234bmt February 23, 2018 at 12:05 am

    the more I see my girl here the more I want to smash…..

  • Reply Randy Smith March 25, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Looks like she has some snot running down her nose.

  • Reply EloquentTroll April 16, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Dextromethorphan is also a dissociative anesthetic, in high doses it can cause a hallucinogenic trip. Unfortunately the other medicines it's usually mixed with will damage your body a lot in the process (especially your liver, which is important to note for drunks like me)

  • Reply DiabloMinero April 17, 2018 at 12:40 am

    Pseudoephedrine works better than any other legal decongestant. And so of course some asshat with a meth lab had to ruin everything for the rest of us.

  • Reply Noodle Kaboodle June 12, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    I just take paracetamol and menthol sweets for my colds and that works really well for me 🙂🙂🙂

  • Reply Peter Hutchinson June 19, 2018 at 7:29 am

    can you get a cold or flu in the summer it's not just a winter thing

  • Reply Wolf Heart June 25, 2018 at 2:00 am

    What about old buckley's mixture, thats the only one that actually seems to works really well. Whats different about it?

  • Reply unknown Boss June 25, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    Oh God,why am I here today!!

  • Reply Niels Smits June 30, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    Dxm 😍

  • Reply Zappa Woman July 13, 2018 at 4:51 am

    Sudafed makes me cry for some strange reason. I'll stick to Vicks Vaporub and chicken broth, thanks.

  • Reply Rick Eisner September 1, 2018 at 10:08 am

    More Olivia… B-)

  • Reply 𖥠 ꧁Æ♱ℍᴲᮄℜᴲⅅ꧂𖥠 September 14, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    It doesn't.

  • Reply Richard Meadows October 3, 2018 at 3:28 am

    Girl looks like Amy from Big Bang Theory

  • Reply Tomas Robinson October 28, 2018 at 1:34 am

    Ain't no fussin with the tussin.

  • Reply Bazooka Llama Productions November 9, 2018 at 12:12 am

    Yeah f*ck off Sudafed. If its no better than placebo TAKE IT OFF THE SHELVES. >.<

  • Reply Majid Mido November 20, 2018 at 5:25 pm

    winter is coming

  • Reply Alexander Quattrociocchi December 18, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Do the effects of the decongestant reduce your body's ability to fight the virus?

  • Reply SnowWonder December 23, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    The cough is not the worst. I can ignore a cough, I can tolerate a sore throat. The inflamed and congested sinuses are the worst. I can tolerate the other stuff, but I can not tolerate the pounding pressure in my face, the burning, and the not being able to breathe through my nose. I am so tired of people offering me nyquill when I get sick. I need pseudoephedrine, not the fake phenylephrine. I have bad sinuses though so maybe that's why the other stuff doesn't seem as bad.

  • Reply FrancesBaconandEggs February 1, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Why isn’t it a bad thing to constrict blood vessels? Shouldn’t we WANT more blood flow so that our immune system can fight the viruses?

  • Reply NaturalRights March 2, 2019 at 8:19 am

    Does this woman expect people to listen to a person with a ring in her nose?

  • Reply Josh S-TV March 5, 2019 at 6:02 am

    They work well 4 me for now

  • Reply nick labian March 12, 2019 at 2:25 am

    It doesn’t

  • Reply Ian Killingsley March 19, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Dextromethorphan is a synthetic, it is not derived from morphine. & much like other synthetic morphinan we are Slowly learning that there are many (not few) unintended adverse effects. This is a prescription drug in every other country and there’s a reason for that. so don’t take this lady’s word for it.
    & always remember to be especially careful with synthetic anything.

  • Reply Adán Velázquez March 24, 2019 at 4:44 am

    NyQuil is effective as hell for me ❤️

  • Reply Drew April 1, 2019 at 12:05 am

    So basically it's all a waste of money

  • Reply sergiu adrian April 2, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    She has such a liberal face 😀 I bet 100 coins she hates Trump 😀

  • Reply Troma April 3, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    Over the counter cough meds never work. Also, doctors will rarely give out codeine which actually works. I find it annoying that docs cannot just look up your medical history to see if you are a abuser of it. Sick of spending weeks coughing my lungs out because there is nothing on the market that works.

  • Reply Roachaximus September 5, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Anyone remember that Magic School Bus episode when they went inside Ralphie?

  • Reply LMP3 September 6, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    You certainly won't be cozying up with a man to look at you

  • Reply Cathleen Marks December 25, 2019 at 12:04 am

    tylenol day and night cold is the best

  • Reply Luke Triton January 1, 2020 at 9:15 am

    I blame the boomer at the doctor waiting room sitting close to me when the guy was coughing.

  • Reply Zes January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    wrg, no anxietx etc for such,x anyx

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