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What’s the Difference Between Mucinex vs Delsym vs Sudafed?

a person in front of their medicine cabinet trying to decide which medicine to use to treat their cold and flu symptoms

By Beth Coopman PharmD., pharmacist at Network Health
12/1/2023

When you get the cold or flu, you will likely seek out medicine to help ease your symptoms. These medicines are easy enough to find, but you may not fully understand how each cold or flu medicine differs from another.

The distinction is important, though. Some may think of Mucinex, Delsym and Sudafed as being simply different brand names of the same type of medicine, but this is not the case.

Different Types of Cold and Flu Medicines

There are three main types of medicine for the cold and flu. They are decongestants, cough suppressants and expectorants. Therefore, depending on your symptoms, not all medicines may provide you with relief.

Here is how each of these categories is defined.

  1. Decongestants – These reduce inflammation in your sinus cavity, making it easier for you to breath through both your nose and mouth.
  2. Cough Suppressants – As the name suggests, this medicine is meant to relieve coughing.
  3. Expectorants – Mucus can be thick, and expectorants help thin it out, allowing you to clear it out of your airways more easily when you cough.

[More Ways to Treat the Flu]

How Mucinex, Delsym and Sudafed Compare

As you may have guessed by now, Mucinex, Delsym and Sudafed fall into different categories of cold medicine. Mucinex is an expectorant meant to help you when your chest is full of mucus that you need help coughing up. Delsym, among other brands, is a cough suppressant meant to ease your cough enough for you to sleep a little more peacefully at night, though you shouldn’t expect it to do anything to actually get rid of any mucus. Sudafed is a decongestant, and though it won’t help stop a runny nose or a cough, it can help you breathe easier despite such symptoms.

It's worth noting that some products may combine two or more of these categories to provide a two-in-one solution. Regardless, you should choose the one that is best meant to alleviate your specific symptoms. Avoid choosing multi-symptom cold medications that have added ingredients for symptoms that you do not have.

Do These Medicines Actually Work?

Cold and flu medicines can include a variety of ingredients, though two that you may have heard of are phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Phenylephrine, in particular, has received significant attention following news that a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel concluded that the kind of oral phenylephrine that you can find over-the-counter at your pharmacy is not effective for nasal decongestion. Chemically speaking, the way oral phenylephrine is absorbed and metabolized, only a minimal amount enters the bloodstream translating to negligible benefit for your congestion.

That said, as of November 2023, the FDA has not yet decided to require that phenylephrine be removed from over-the-counter cough and cold products. If you wish to avoid this ingredient, it’s worth noting that phenylephrine in such products is not dangerous, and it is possible to find relief from symptoms due to other ingredients within a medicine that contains phenylephrine. You should also know that products like Sudafed may be available with either pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. The variety with pseudoephedrine is available by speaking with your pharmacy, where it is available behind the counter with your driver’s license, whereas the variety with phenylephrine is available over-the-counter and is known as Sudafed PE. The pseudoephedrine sold behind the pharmacy counter is an effective decongestant, however, it can increase heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety for some people.

[Read more: Does Oscillococcinum Work for the Cold and Flu?]

All of this goes to show that something as simple as treating your cold or flu symptoms may not be so simple after all. Speak with your pharmacist or personal doctor to discuss more details about these medicines and which may work best for you.


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