Phenylephrine: Why is it replacing pseudoephedrine?

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Phenylephrine: Why is it replacing pseudoephedrine?

Question

I see that my favorite cold and allergy medicine now contains phenylephrine instead of pseudoephedrine. But phenylephrine seems to be less effective as a decongestant. So why is it replacing pseudoephedrine?

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Answer

Phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine are both decongestants. Until recently, pseudoephedrine has been the more commonly used decongestant and a key ingredient in many popular nonprescription cold and allergy medications. Unfortunately, pseudoephedrine is also a key ingredient in making methamphetamine, a highly addictive illegal stimulant.

In an effort to combat methamphetamine production, federal law now requires that all nonprescription medications containing pseudoephedrine be taken off drugstore shelves and kept "behind the counter" in the pharmacy. To purchase these medications, you must go to the pharmacy and ask for it. You must also show some form of government-issued identification and sign a logbook.

As you might guess, some drug companies are concerned that these "extra steps" may discourage people from buying cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine. So they are quietly reformulating these products — removing the decongestant ingredient or replacing pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine.

The problem is that phenylephrine generally is a less effective decongestant in the pill form than is pseudoephedrine. Some researchers say the nasal spray form of phenylephrine may work better than the pill form, but nasal spray decongestants should only be used for a few days at a time.

So how do you know what you're getting? Read the ingredient lists on your cold and allergy medications to see if they contain phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine — even if the product packaging looks the same.

Last Updated: 02/21/2007
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