Are OTC Allergy and Cold Medications Making Your Heart Race?

Watch for these signs of problems

Are OTC Allergy and Cold Medications Making Your Heart Race?

We’ve all felt our hearts race, whether because of exertion, stress or fear. But what does it mean if you get that same heart-pounding feeling from over-the-counter drugs you take to control allergies or cold symptoms? Does that mean there’s a problem?

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The short answer is: It depends.

If you’re generally healthy and the feeling only lasts for a short time, it likely isn’t a problem.

“These palpitations can occur in people with heart disease or in those who are healthy,” says cardiologist Matthew Kaminski, MD. “But for healthy people, these skipped heartbeats are usually harmless or benign and typically not a concern.”

He notes, however, that occasionally a healthy person discovers a heart abnormality after taking OTC allergy or cold medicine. He says to contact your doctor if the palpitations last for more than 30 minutes or if you notice symptoms of lightheadedness or shortness of breath.

What about people with heart problems?

If you take medication for high blood pressure and you have a heart condition, you need to pay attention if your heart reacts to over-the-counter drugs.

“Oftentimes, the heart doctor may overlook this topic because there are so many other things that he or she must highlight with the patient,” Dr. Kaminski says.

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His advice? If you have high blood pressure, abnormal arrhythmia, supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) or congestive heart failure, you should avoid OTC medicines that contain a decongestant (they usually carry a “D” after the name).

Dr. Kaminski specifically recommends against using pseudoephedrine. (Because it also can be used to make illegal methamphetamine, or “meth,” a highly addictive stimulant, pharmacies must store these drugs in a secure location.)

What’s the problem with decongestants and your heart?

You reach for a decongestant to help clear a runny, stuffy nose. A decongestant eases congestion by constricting the blood vessels. This dries up nasal mucus.

But this vascular constriction also can occur throughout the body. This can cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, or skipped beats. And it can interfere with your heart medications, Dr. Kaminski says.

If you have a heart condition, heart palpitations can last several hours after you take a decongestant.

4 tips for relieving congestion when you have a heart condition

1. Try a saline nasal spray to relieve your congestion.

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2. Increase the humidity in your home. A cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer may help ease congestion.

3. Talk to your cardiologist. He or she can tell you which OTC medicines are safe to use with your heart condition and the medications you take.

4. Avoid drugs with “D” after the name. Take time to read the warning labels on the bottle or box. When in doubt, consult the pharmacist. “Pharmacists are a great resource,” Dr. Kaminski says.

If you have a heart condition, pay attention to which over-the-counter drugs you use. These tips can help you manage cold and allergy symptoms without making your heart race. Your doctor may have other tips that will help.

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