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Help! My Cold Meds Make Me Anxious. What Can I Do?

Help! My Cold Meds Make Me Anxious. What Can I Do?‘Tis the season, I suppose, for phlegm-y illnesses. Today, one of my most-read blog posts is this: “Cold Meds Got You Anxious? Know Your Ingredients!

It’s a must-read for those of you who:

  • have an anxiety disorder
  • plan on getting at least a head cold before winter’s end
  • tend to react with heightened sensitivity to medicines

I’m a huge advocate of understanding what you’re putting into your body — whether it be food, meds, or whatever else. I ask my doctors a billion questions every time they prescribe me a new drug, and I’m one to “test” new meds in a safe place (i.e., my home) to gauge my body’s reaction before I begin taking them as directed.


And why? As I’d mentioned in the above-linked post, understanding your body’s reaction to a medicine gives you a sense of calming control:

…[G]etting to know the ingredients in your cold medicine gives you a greater sense of control over your illness.

Knowing the effect that a specific medicine has on your body can be comforting — instead of attributing a mild sense of wooziness to an impending panic attack, wouldn’t it be nice to sit back and say with confidence that you KNOW diphenhydramine (an antihistamine) makes you feel this way? You know it’s the medicine, and it might be uncomfortable — but it doesn’t signify anything. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

If you get to know how each of these ingredients personally affects your body, you can more easily come to terms with how they make you feel.

I won’t rehash the entire article for you here, but my intention today is sort of similar — instead of talking about which cold med ingredients have certain physiological effects, I’m going to talk about ways you can reduce anxiety when you’re feeling sick.

There are two plans of attack: reducing anxiety about the cold meds themselves (if you do choose to take them), and showing you a few alternatives (that I personally use) when I’m playing that terrible “choose between panic or sickness” game.


I own a pill splitter — and I think you should, too. They’re so useful. For the longest time, I was taking 10 mg of Maxalt for my migraines. Then, short on my pill supply, I split one of those 10 mg pills in half and discovered that 5 mg did the same trick. (Now, I split them down to 2.5 mg — and they still work on most of my migraines!)

Now, when I try new meds, I always try a lower dose than what’s recommended. After all, why overload my body with a medicine that might be just as effective at half strength?

If you’re feeling miserable — let’s say you’ve got a head cold — and you really want to reach for that bottle of NyQuil but you know, from experience, that you don’t like the woozy feeling it gives you. If you try a smaller dose, you might still get the relief you’re looking for — without as much anxiety.

I’m very sensitive to pseudophedrine (and I know many people, other than myself, who have experienced bona-fide panic attacks after taking it). On the rare occasions that I’m stuffy and miserable enough to dig it out of my medicine cabinet, I always give myself a half dose. It keeps the spaciness to a minimum and still does a fair job at treating all the stuffy.

Now, another thing worth mentioning: if you go ahead and read the post I mentioned above, you’ll learn that many over-the-counter cold meds actually include more than one active ingredient. If one of those meds — say, NyQuil — makes you feel panicky, how will you know which of the 3 active ingredients are the culprit?

You can only tease out that sort of thing by trying individual active ingredients at a time. You might want to look for OTC products that only contain one active ingredient. Then, you can assess it — perhaps at a baby-sized dose, as mentioned above — to see how it makes you feel.

Tomorrow, the next chunk of this post: if you’re truly afraid to take any medicines when you’re sick, how can you best treat yourself? Check back soon!

(Oh, and obviously: none of this is medical advice. I’m just sharing what works best for me. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about how you can best treat yourself while ill.)

Photo: Mandy Jansen (Flickr)

Help! My Cold Meds Make Me Anxious. What Can I Do?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2013). Help! My Cold Meds Make Me Anxious. What Can I Do?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2013
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