You hate to miss your workout but can't stop sneezing. So you pop a cold pill and head to the gym. But should you pump iron with that load of decongestants in your system?
You rarely have trouble falling asleep, but last night was the exception. You took an over-the-counter sleep aid and snoozed away the night. Now it's 6 a.m. and you're raring to run. But should you?
Do over-the-counter medicines and exercise mix? It depends, the experts say, on how much medicine you took (and what kind) and the extent of your workout. (Consult your physician regarding prescription drugs.)
Even among pharmacists opinions vary. There is usually no problem taking cough and cold medicines right before a moderate workout, contends Alan Martin, president-elect of the California Pharmacists Assn. and owner of Economy Drug in San Luis Obispo. Other experts suggest that some medicines are best taken an hour or two before exercise and that some are best taken after a workout.
Cold Medicine and Exercise: Cold and cough medications that aim to decongest usually contain stimulants. If you exercise soon after taking a dose, you might feel a rush of energy followed by fatigue as the drug wears off. You could also experience a fast heart beat, nervousness, shakiness and a headache. Consider waiting an hour or two, says Sylvia Curry, director of pharmacy at Century City Hospital.
Cough and cold medicines can also include antihistamines, which act as sedatives. (Don't count on them canceling out the stimulant effects of the decongestants, Curry says, noting that everyone responds to medicine differently.)
It's best to pick a cough syrup without alcohol, Curry says. But Martin counters that there is not enough alcohol in most over-the-counter cough syrups to have much effect on exercise.
When taking cough and cold medicines with stimulants, though, it is wise to reduce caffeine intake to minimize that "hyped up" feeling, says Dr. Kenneth Landis, director of pulmonary medicine at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, Inglewood.
Allergy Medicine and Workouts: Most over-the-counter allergy medicines contain antihistamines, which can make you drowsy, slow reaction times and impair coordination.
Wait at least two hours after a dose to exercise, Curry suggests, or work out beforehand.
OTC Sleeping Aids: "Over-the-counter sleep aids usually wear off in four to six hours," says Martin, making morning exercise likely to be free of side-effects.
Cramp Pills: Take "menstrual relief" medicine (such as Midol, Pamprin) after exercise, experts say, because the drugs act as a diuretic, perhaps making it difficult to get through an entire workout without a bathroom stop. Be sure to eat potassium-rich foods (bananas, orange juice) to replenish potassium lost with increased urine production.
Pain Medications: Taking pain medicine such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen before exercise might mask pain and set you up for serious injury, some say.
But it can also reduce inflammation in an injured area and allow you to ease back into exercise.
Formula Options: The "time-release" formulas of over-the-counter medicines are probably a better option if you plan to exercise after taking them, Landis says. "Slow-release forms are less likely to increase your heart rate and elevate your blood pressure," he says. Ask your pharmacist which forms are slow-release because not all may be labeled as such.
The Common-Sense Factor: People with a tendency to anxiety or who have chronic conditions such as asthma should be especially careful about mixing over-the-counter medicine and exercise, Landis says. Listening to your body is wise, too. "People's response (to medicine) is variable," Landis says. Someone who rarely takes medicine might be more sensitive to the sedating effects of antihistamines, for instance. Regular exercisers often have a better-than-average ability to listen to their bodies and are likely to recognize side effects promptly.
Natural Remedies: Consider natural routes to relief if your cough or cold isn't too bad. Use a humidifier to decongest. Drink lots of water and get more rest to relieve congestion. Exercise itself might improve congestion, at least temporarily.
Caveats: Exercisers should make their physicians and pharmacists aware of their workout routines, especially if a new medicine is ordered. When buying over-the-counter medicines or filling prescriptions, ask the pharmacist what effect, if any, a dose will have on your regular workout.
Know when to stop self-treatment. "Don't take a cough or cold medicine longer than five to seven days without seeing a doctor," Curry says.