Phoenix pharmacist calls popular decongestant ‘worthless,’ drug under FDA panel review

A popular ingredient in many over-the-counter allergy and cold medicines reportedly doesn't work and a Phoenix pharmacist says she's known this for years.
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 10:08 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - If you’ve had a stuffy nose when you caught a cold or when allergies hit you hard, you probably go to the drugstore and reach for an over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant. On Tuesday, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unanimously agreed that the active ingredient in that medication that’s supposed to help actually does nothing.

A customer at the Fairmont Pharmacy on North Central Avenue in Phoenix was surprised. “Because that’s why get it, right? For decongestion,” said Nicholas Magdaleno.

According to their research, the FDA advisors found that ‘phenylephrine,’ the key ingredient for OTC decongestants, is no better than a placebo when taken orally.

Dr. Natalee King, the pharmacy manager, said she has been pointing out that detail to her customers for years. “I’ve been a pharmacist for 22 years, and when people ask for recommendations, I’ve been them for 22 years that it doesn’t work,” said Dr. King. “(It’s) The worthless decongestant, phenylephrine.”

She explained phenylephrine is supposed to constrict blood vessels to offer relief when congested. Dr. King said oral forms of the drug are not absorbed into the body. However, she explained that topical forms like nasal sprays get on the surface of the blood vessels, causing congestion in the nose. Therefore, phenylephrine works when applied topically. Topical products are not included in the FDA panel’s review.

Dr. King also said the medications with phenylephrine, such as Dayquil, Sudafed PE, and other products, have more active ingredients that help relieve other cold and flu symptoms.

If the FDA follows through with the advisors’ recommendations, drug companies would have to pull their products containing phenylephrine from pharmacy shelves. “I mean, I’m kind of surprised they took this long, but then kind of not because, like you say, it is a business,” said Dr. King. “Sometimes, It’s just about the dollar. Unfortunately.”

Magdaleno agreed, saying, “I mean, I’m all for it. If it don’t work, get it out then. You gotta help people because it’s the worst being congested.”

Dr. King said the SudaFed behind-the-counter (BTC) that contains pseudoephedrine works but requires identification. She said it’s no longer on the floor partly due to people stealing the product to make methamphetamine.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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