Assessment of Pharmacologic Ingredients in Common Over-the-Counter Sinonasal Medications

JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2020 Sep 1;146(9):810-815. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2020.1836.


Importance: Sinonasal remedies are the most frequently purchased category of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in the United States. A variety of options for relief are available under proprietary names, although the actual number of available options may not be readily appreciated by the consumer or the clinician.

Objective: To determine the prevalence of specific ingredients in OTC sinonasal products.

Design, setting, and participants: This cross-sectional study took physical inventory of brand-name and generic OTC drugs marketed as sinus, cold, allergy, or nasal remedies. Retail pharmacies in New Orleans, Louisiana, commercial websites, and the Drugs, Herbs and Supplements section of MedlinePlus and were searched. Data were collected and analyzed from July 1 to 31, 2018.

Main outcomes and measures: Frequency of active ingredients in OTC formulations.

Results: Five pharmacies were visited to identify 18 brands, for which the commercial websites were then searched. The 14 most common brands represented 211 unique products. Only 8 unique nonanalgesic ingredients were identified among these products, with many products sold under the same brand name and with the same active ingredient. Phenylephrine hydrochloride, dextromethorphan hydrobromide, pseudoephedrine hydrochloride, guaifenesin, chlorpheniramine maleate, brompheniramine maleate, diphenhydramine hydrochloride, and doxylamine succinate were the common active ingredients, with all available OTC sinonasal remedies consisting of 1 or more of these ingredients. The frequency of occurrence of each ingredient ranged from 10 to 261 different products. Combinations of 2, 3, or 4 active ingredients occurred frequently in OTC sinonasal products.

Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that proliferation of brand extension products under a common name is pervasive. Clinicians should be aware of the large array of redundant OTC formulations and lack of specificity when discussing brand-name sinonasal remedies with their patients.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / chemistry
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Combinations
  • Histamine Antagonists / chemistry
  • Histamine Antagonists / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Nonprescription Drugs / chemistry*
  • Nonprescription Drugs / pharmacology*
  • Respiratory System Agents / chemistry
  • Respiratory System Agents / pharmacology*
  • United States


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Drug Combinations
  • Histamine Antagonists
  • Nonprescription Drugs
  • Respiratory System Agents