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Over-the-counter drugs that can boost blood pressure

December 1, 2021

If you have high blood pressure, take care when choosing products for treating cold and flu symptoms or pain.

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As winter arrives and the cold and flu season starts to peak, many people head to pharmacies looking for products to ease their sniffles and aches. Remedies for cold, allergy, and sinus problems are the most frequently purchased category of over-the-counter drugs in this country. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also very popular — and frequently found in combination cold and flu medicines. But some of these products may be risky for people with high blood pressure. Here’s some guidance about what to avoid and suggestions for safer alternatives.

Clearing a stuffy nose

"The most concerning products are those that contain decongestants, because they constrict or narrow blood vessels, which can raise blood pressure," says Joanne Doyle Petrongolo, a pharmacist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. When you have a cold, your body sends extra blood to your nose. The blood vessels and nearby tissues swell, causing congestion or a stuffy nose. But if you take a decongestant, it affects all your blood vessels, not just those in your nose. That’s why it’s safest to avoid products that contain oxymetazoline (Afrin), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), and phenylephrine (Suphedrin PE).

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