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What is Sudafed®?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Sudafed® is a brand-name drug that can actually refer to several different drugs. In the past, when people bought this drug in pill-form, they received a decongestant called pseudoephedrine. This was widely available over the counter, and for many people without conditions like cardiovascular illness, it proved very useful in clearing up nasal congestion symptoms.

Concern about pseudoephedrine in Sudafed®, generic equivalents and other products arose. Pseudoephedrine could be used to make certain illegal forms of methamphetamine, and people had quick access to high volumes of it. In the 2000s, the decision was made to change the formulation of Sudafed® and it was principally replaced with a medication called phenylephrine. Now, if people go to their drug store to purchase over the counter Sudafed®, they’re likely to get a nasal decongestant that contains phenylephrine, and this decongestant can be found in other things that once continued pseudoephedrine, such as many combination cold and flu drugs or antihistamine and decongestant medicines, and in some nasal sprays.

There are some people who don’t feel there is much difference in function between pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine. Others are very divided and believe pseudoephedrine was far more effective. Though not available in an “over the counter” sense, most people still don’t need a prescription for pseudoephedrine. They can get it by approaching a pharmacist and asking for it. This allows the pharmacy to track sales of the medication, limit them to certain amounts and make sure requests for the drug are for personal and not illegal use.

Both of these medications in the present and former Sudafed® do have noted sided effects. Pseudoephedrine can cause dry mouth and eyes, rapid heartbeat, increased nervousness, insomnia and hyperactive behavior. More serious side effects like heart arrhythmia have been reported on rare occasion, and the drug is usually not recommended for people with thyroid disorders, heart conditions, anxiety disorder, enlarged prostate, glaucoma, or for those being treated with antidepressants or mood stabilizers.

Phenylephrine effects are important to note because they can cause high blood pressure and the decongestant is usually contraindicated if people presently have hypertension or take hypertension medications. Both pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine have many of the same contraindications. An important addition is that the latter has been linked to causing seizures in people with epilepsy. Milder side effects may include dry mouth, sleeplessness, dizziness, excitability, headache, and upset stomach.

It’s easy to forget that an over the counter medicine is still a medicine. It can interact with other medications taken or other conditions a person has. When in doubt or if a person has prominent medical conditions, he should talk with a doctor or pharmacist about the appropriateness of taking either form of Sudafed®.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
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Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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