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3 Apr 2020

Why you don't need to pay out for pricey cough and cold remedies

The Office for National Statistics reports that prices have gone up 11% since the UK lockdown. Here's how to navigate price rises and high demand

The price of cough and cold medicines sold online have risen by nearly 11%, according to new analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). But we've found that cough and cold medicines aren't always worth their regular price, let alone an inflated one.

We know that with increased demand for painkillers, and cold and flu medication at the moment, it might be hard to find these common medicines - and many of us will just snap up the closest appropriate product we can find in stock.

But it's worth knowing that you don't necessarily need to pay over the odds for specific cold and flu remedies when a regular painkiller will do.

Don't worry too much if you can't find cough medicine, either. In the past, we've found limited evidence for its efficacy.

Coronavirus and medicine shortages - we explain what's behind the issues

You don't need combination cold and flu tablets

The cold and flu market is stacked with combination preparations that are advertised as a comprehensive remedy for a given ailment.

But these usually cost more than their component ingredients - not all of which will even be needed for the duration of a cold.

Most standard cold and flu tablets contain 25mg caffeine, 300mg paracetamol and 5mg phenylephrine hydrochloride. The combination is meant to combat drowsiness, pain and congestion (phenylephrine is used as a decongestant).

Combination remedies are usually more expensive than buying the individual medicines, as you pay for the convenience of only having to take one tablet rather than several.

But some of these extras can easily be had elsewhere. Caffeine can boost the pain-relieving effects of cold and flu remedies or painkillers, but it can also bump up the price considerably. Instead, you could take a normal painkiller and have a cup of coffee at the same time.

Some of these combination products contain a lower than optimal amount of paracetamol, too. A standard paracetamol tablet contains 500mg, but combination tablets can have lower amounts.

Cheapest cough and cold medicines: we compare prices of branded and own brand medicines

Same product, different packaging

In the past, we've called out companies for packaging up the same medicine in different packaging that might encourage people to buy more than what they need. For example, some ibuprofen or paracetamol products targeted at period pain may be more expensive despite being identical to standard versions.

However, at the moment, this might come in handy if something you're looking for is out of stock - you might be able to find the same product in a different box.

For instance, Sudafed products labelled 'sinus', 'mucus relief' (day tablets) or 'congestion and headache', may look different, but the active ingredients and strength of the pills are all the same.

Check the box for the active ingredient - it should be on the front, so you can identify similar products. If in doubt, you can check with the pharmacist.

Does cough medicine work?

If you can't get hold of cough medicine, or it's much more expensive than usual, don't worry, because we think you can give it a miss anyway.

Some people like the soothing effect that drinking cough liquid or sucking on a cough lozenge gives. The NHS says that doing this may make you cough slightly less, but it won't stop or cure a cough.

In a previous Which? investigation, we found that the evidence behind active ingredients (in many cough syrups (such as guaifenesin) don't justify the claims made on the packaging. Plus, they're usually quite high in sugar too.

The traditional home remedy of a hot honey and lemon drink is a simple, soothing alternative.

Finding the cheapest cold and flu medicines

Bearing in mind that many supermarkets, pharmacies and discount stores may be temporarily out of stock of some common medicines as demand has risen in recent weeks, here's a summary of what we found recently when tracking prices of common cold and flu remedies:

  • Branded cold and flu medicines such as Lemsip and Sudafed can cost almost three times as much as own-brand products.
  • Prices also vary significantly between own-brand products from pharmacies and supermarkets.
  • Overall, cold and flu tablets tended to be cheaper from a supermarket or discount store rather than the pharmacy.
  • You'll probably make the biggest savings at Asda. Its own-brand cold and flu products were cheapest across the board, and it was cheapest for the branded versions too.

It's also worth knowing what the latest rules around pharmacy opening hours, social distancing rules and buying restrictions are. See our guide to pharmacy coronavirus changes.

You can keep up to date on our latest coverage over on our coronavirus advice hub.