the drugstore project

How to Stock Your Medicine Cabinet, According to 49 Doctors, Nurses, and Pharmacists

Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In today’s drugstores, you can find everything from Kelly Ripa’s favorite root cover-up spray to toothpaste imported from Florence — not to mention celebrity-beloved candy and a full aesthetician-approved skin-care routine. There are so many unique products, it’s easy to forget about the stores’ namesake: drugs. Whether you’re looking for a decongestant or an anti-itch cream, one of a drugstore’s biggest benefits is that you’ll always find aisle after aisle of options promising to help you feel better fast.

With so many choices out there, it can be tricky to figure out what pills, ointments, and tinctures are worth having on hand. To cut through the confusion, we asked 49 health-care professionals, including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, to recommend their favorite products across 32 categories — throat lozenges, antacids, bandages, laxatives, and more — and rounded up their picks here. Consider this your one-stop shop for a fully stocked medicine cabinet. (And of course, always consult your own doctor before taking a new medication.)

Pain Relief, Cold, Flu, and Allergies

Best pain relievers

With 16 experts recommending it specifically (and an additional six suggesting its active ingredient, acetaminophen), Tylenol was one of the most name-checked brands in our survey. “Tylenol is a tried and true pain reliever, effective for headache and fever,” says pharmacist Joanna Lewis, of the Pharmacist’s Guide. Timothy Aungst, pharmacist and founder of The Digital Apothecary, says, “I like acetaminophen because it doesn’t have a lot of drug interactions and is relatively safe.” Reproductive endocrinologist Thomas Molinaro adds that Tylenol is also safe for pregnant women.

Because its active ingredient, ibuprofen, works on different pain pathways than Tylenol, Advil (our second-most-cited pain reliever) is worth adding to your medicine cabinet, too. Joseph Pena, doctor of anesthesiology and pain medicine, says the two drugs “are the backbone of any analgesic regimen, and both work very well for a wide variety of pain.” According to Lewis, unlike Tylenol, ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory, so it has more of an effect on muscle and body pain.

Best cough medicine

A whopping 12 experts recommend Robitussin for coughs, mainly because of its two highly effective active ingredients: dextromethorphan and guaifenesin. According to plastic surgeon John Paul Tutela, guaifenesin is an expectorant that helps your cough be more productive, and dextromethorphan helps suppress the urge to cough. “The last one in particular may help you get more sleep as you won’t wake yourself up from coughing as much,” he says.

Best cold medicine

For around-the-clock relief from sore throat, cough, fever, and other cold symptoms, experts like the combined power of DayQuil and NyQuil. “They both contain a fever reducer and pain reliever, a cough suppressant, and a nasal decongestant,” says Tutela. Internist Amy Bleyer adds that they provide the “best results with [the] fewest side effects.” If you have a runny nose, the antihistamine in NyQuil can handle that too, says pharmacist Regina Moore, founder of Pharmacists Connect.

Best antihistamine for allergies

Allergy medicine has a reputation for causing drowsiness, and while this is true for some older drugs, experts say it’s not the case with Zyrtec. “Zyrtec is in the newer class of allergy medicines,” says Lewis. “It works pretty quickly and does not have a lot of sedation side effects compared to some of the others.” Bariatric surgeon Daniel J. Rosen calls it “strong and long lasting,” and Andrea Klemes, doctor of internal medicine and endocrinology, takes it herself because she thinks it “works the best.”

Best nasal spray for allergies

If your allergies have you sniffling and constantly reaching for tissues, several of our experts recommend trying Flonase. According to Lewis, Flonase “works by vasoconstricting and reducing inflammation in the nasal passages.” Even compared to antihistamines, “nasal steroid sprays are proven to be most effective at fighting allergies,” says Natasha Bhuyan, a family medicine doctor at One Medical. Susanna Silverman, an allergy and immunology specialist, says consistent use during allergy season “provides targeted relief for allergic rhinitis [inflammation of nasal mucus membranes] symptoms, including sneezing and runny nose.”

Best decongestant

When you’re really stuffed up, our experts suggest finding Sudafed with pseudoephedrine. It’s not available online — an unfortunate side effect of pseudoephedrine’s being an ingredient in meth — so you’ll need to head to the actual drugstore to buy it. If you can’t make the trek, Sudafed PE contains a similar, if not quite as effective, drug called phenylephrine.

Best chest rub for cough

$19 for 4

Nearly two dozen of our experts singled out Vicks VapoRub as the ultimate topical treatment for cough and congestion. Albert Levy, a family medicine doctor, calls it “warming and reassuring,” Aungst likes the “nice smell,” and internist Holly Phillips says it’s her “grandma’s remedy.” As for how it works, pharmacist Jamie Hardy says, “the medicated vapors are released quickly to help with both congestion and suppression of cough. The sensation produced by the camphor and menthol are soothing and calming.”

Best throat lozenges