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.

Advil Coated Tablets

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

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

Beating out Ricola by one vote, Halls is our most expert-recommended cough drop. Dermatologist Erum Ilyas likes that they “contain menthol and can help open up your airways if you’re feeling under the weather.” Intensive care nurse Nace Denton-Hurst agrees that the menthol “helps with itching and irritation,” and family medicine doctor C. Nicole Swiner recommends them to “reduce post nasal drip and promote frequent swallowing.”

Best thermometer

While many doctors say a generic digital thermometer is all you need, a few felt strongly about forehead thermometers (especially if you’re dealing with babies and kids) like the Exergen. “Forehead thermometers, also known as temporal artery thermometers, are accurate and easy to use,” says Bhuyan. “They use an infrared scanner to measure the temperature of the temporal artery in the forehead.” Registered nurse Brittney Wilson calls Exergen “the best,” and Lewis says, “it is much more convenient with kids and also ensures I have an accurate reading.” Plus, as Ilyas points out, it’s easier to clean than a mouth or armpit thermometer so there’s less chance of spreading infection.

Dental & Oral Care

Best cold-sore treatment

When it comes to cold sores — painful blisters on the edges of the lips associated with the herpes simplex virus — the consensus among doctors is that Abreva is the most effective treatment. “Abreva is the only FDA-approved, non-prescription cold sore medicine,” says Phillips. “[It] shortens the course of the outbreak and works best when started before the sore appears.” (Tingling usually precedes the sore, she says.) While other medications simply numb the spot, Aungst says that the active ingredient in Abreva is a “topical antiviral,” so it actually reduces replication of the virus, which helps speed up healing. Lewis adds that Abreva has “been shown to decrease the healing time and shorten the duration of symptoms, such as burning and itching.”

Best canker-sore treatment

Unlike cold sores, canker sores appear within the mouth and aren’t contagious. They can be caused by anything from irritation within the mouth to food sensitivities to stress or hormone changes. “They resolve on their own and something to help the pain is all that’s needed,” says Scott Ferrara, a doctor of pulmonary medicine. Along with a handful of other doctors, he likes Orajel for pain relief. Rosen is a fan because Orajel “numbs [the] area and has a minty taste.”

Best toothache pain reliever

You can use a topical pain reliever (like Orajel above) for a toothache, but lots of doctors recommend sticking with a standard analgesic for longer-term relief. Dentist Inna Chern likes NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines) instead of something like Tylenol. “Most tooth pain is inflammatory and these are the go-to’s for inflammatory pain,” she says. “I recommend Aleve because it lasts longer — 10-12 hours.” This is one area, though, where the problem likely won’t get better without professional intervention. “Go to a dentist if it doesn’t resolve quickly,” says Ferrara. “Pain might be [a] sign of infection and you don’t want to develop an abscess.”

Eye Care

Best contact-lens solution

Although many of our experts said that contact solution is largely a matter of personal preference, three recommend Opti-Free. “It’s what I have always used,” says pharmacist Suzanne Soliman, founder of Pharmacist Moms Group. Ilyas likes that it’s “helpful for sensitive eye issues and less likely to irritate your eyes,” and it makes dermatologist Zain Husain’s list because it “disinfects and is hydrating.”

Best eye drops for redness

“Visine works quickly and effectively to constrict the blood vessels locally that lead to redness,” says Ilyas. Seven other experts agree. Gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal says tetrahydrozoline, the active ingredient in Visine, is an effective decongestant that “acts to decrease redness of the eyes.”

Best eye drops for itchiness

Since eye itchiness is usually a response to allergies, Aungst (who warns that this is especially the case “during changes in seasons such as spring when pollen is out”), and many of our other experts like that Zaditor antihistamine drops address the root cause. “These eye drops are effective, containing a medication similar to prescription antihistamine eye drops,” says Silverman. Ilyas says, “I always have this in my car to deal with pollen allergies.”

Best rewetting eye drops for contact lenses

If you wear contacts, you’re probably familiar with your eyes feeling dry after a long day, especially if you spend hours staring at a screen. To rehydrate and soothe your eyes, experts recommend products that mimic natural tears, like these Refresh eye drops. “Refresh feels great as soon as you use it,” says Tutela.

Digestive Issues

Best anti-nausea medications

Nausea is usually accompanied by several other unpleasant symptoms, so our experts are fans of Pepto Bismol since it attacks the problem on multiple fronts. “As the catchy commercial said, it can help with nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, and diarrhea,” says Moore. “So it’s handy to have around to treat a number of stomach ailments, especially if you only want to stock one thing.” Eight experts in total recommend Pepto Bismol, including Hussain, who likes how it provides “fast relief from nausea.”

We had natural and homeopathic suggestions across multiple categories in our survey, but this was the only area where there was a strong consensus — so strong that ginger finished only one vote shy of Pepto. “Ginger has been historically and culturally known to combat nausea and digestive issues,” says family medicine doctor Colin Zhu. Naturopathic doctor Kate Denniston says there’s even some scientific evidence to support ginger’s anti-nausea properties: “Many studies, including a Cochrane review, have concluded that ginger is an effective treatment for reducing pregnancy-related nausea.” Chewable tablets, like these recommended by Zhu, are great for on-the-go, but you can also try ginger ale (with real ginger), Tutela says. Amanda Carney, a holistic health coach at The Well, recommends ginger tea as well.

Best anti-diarrheal

If diarrhea is ongoing (or accompanied with blood) it’s best to get it checked out by a doctor. But for short-term use, Imodium, cited by 20 experts, is a clear winner. “It’s most effective when you really need to stop the diarrhea. It’s common to take when traveling overseas in case of dreaded traveler’s diarrhea,” says Moore. Hussain adds that it’s “effective and fast acting,” and Hardy likes Imodium because it’s a “reliable and trusted brand with well-established maximum doses.” As Soliman points out, it comes in a tablet form, which most people find “tastes better than the liquid.”

Best laxative

For the opposite problem, our experts are fans of Miralax, which softens stool and loosens up backed-up bowels. Hardy says it’s “gentle and uses your body’s natural processes to help stools to pass more easily.” Gastroenterologist Austin Chiang says Miralax is “relatively inert and not absorbed by the intestines, which is why it causes liquid to be retained in the stool. Other agents may be stimulant laxatives which, over time, may lose [their] effect.” Gené van den Ende, head of North America consumer health medical affairs at Bayer (Miralax’s parent company) says — and doctors in our survey confirm — “it doesn’t cause bloating, cramping, gas, or sudden urgency that other laxatives can cause.”

Best antacid

“I love Tums,” says Soliman. “They taste great, they work quickly, and they come in various size packages that are easy to carry.” She’s not alone: 16 more experts recommend Tums for quick-relief from occasional heartburn. Hussain says they’re “effective and come in great flavors,” and Hardy likes that they’re “fast-acting, great for use on-the-go or in the office.” They’re also safe for all ages, according to Klemes, and during pregnancy, says in-patient cardiology nurse practitioner Katie Duke.

First Aid

Best antibiotic ointment

Combining three germ-killing ingredients — bacitracin, neomycin, and polymyxin B — Neosporin is a top pick among experts for treating minor cuts and scrapes. It’s “tried and true,” Klemes says. Hardy and Rosen choose it because there’s no burning or discomfort upon application. “It helps to keep the wound moist and heal with less scarring,” Moore says. Experts caution, though, that some people may have an allergic reaction to Neosporin, in which case they should stick with simple bacitracin.

Best antiseptic

For cleaning a fresh cut and warding off infection, experts like good old hydrogen peroxide. “It kills bacteria and breaks up dried blood,” says Tutela. “It also has the added benefit of getting fresh blood out of clothing.” Cardiologist Steven Reisman likes that “when it foams up, you know it is working.” Bleyer sums it up by saying hydrogen peroxide is “natural, inexpensive and it works!”

Best anti-itch cream

“Hydrocortisone is an absolute must for any medicine cabinet,” says Michael Richardson, a doctor of family medicine at One Medical. “It is a steroid cream that helps reduce inflammation and itch.” While you’ll find the ingredient in Cortizone cream, most experts say you can save a few bucks and buy the generic as long as it contains one percent hydrocortisone. Bhuyan says it’s “cheap and effective against a variety of reasons we itch,” including, Silverman says, “itchy bug bites and mild rashes.” Moore says it’s the “closest to what you will get in prescription anti-itch creams.”

Best bandages

Like Kleenex for tissues and Xerox for photocopy machines, Band-Aid has become synonymous with adhesive bandages, so it’s not surprising that a majority of our experts recommended the brand by name. Depending on the type of injury you’re dealing with, you might need a slightly different type or size of Band-Aid, so we’re including a few different options to have on hand. A “mix of small and large, and preferably waterproof, Band-Aids are a must in all medicine cabinets,” says Levy. Ferrara likes the waterproof tough strips because “they stay on well, unlike most others.” Moore and Phillips both think the Flexible Fabric variety are especially strong. Finally, Rosen likes the antibacterial properties of the Band-Aids with Neosporin.

Best gauze pads

Gauze is useful for protecting wounds that are too big or oddly shaped to cover with a standard bandage. This is an area where you can go generic, but both Reisman and Bleyer prefer Curad, especially their non-stick pads. Emergency medicine physician Louis M. Profeta agrees that non-stick is the main quality to look for in gauze pads, as you don’t want anything that’ll adhere to your wound.

Best adhesive tape

As for getting those gauze pads to stay on your skin, our experts generally prefer paper tape. While tape made from silk is generally stickier, the paper variety is more breathable and gentle. Ilyas says it’s “less irritating to the skin,” than silk tape, which can also cause an allergic reaction. Similarly, cardiologist and internist Annette Osher likes that paper tape “does not pull on skin, and [people are] rarely allergic to it.” Both Ilyas and Soliman say to go with Nexcare.

Best muscle rub

Like Vicks VapoRub for coughs, Bengay is an age-old remedy for muscle aches that doctors still recommend. “I have used Bengay my whole life,” says Soliman. “You know what to expect. It works well and it is the most accessible.” Swiner also likes that it’s “old school, tried and true, not oral and with very limited side effects.” Bengay contains camphor and menthol, two ingredients also found in Vicks that soothe aching muscles in addition to relieving congestion. Ferrara says anything with this combo “improves circulation as well as provides pain relief.”

Best hand sanitizer

When you don’t have access to soap and water for a good hand-washing, experts agree that Purell is the best way to keep your hands germ-free. “It provides excellent protection against germs, killing more than 99.9 percent of the most common ones,” says podiatrist Velimir Petkov. He specifically likes the version with aloe because it keeps hands moisturized. Moore likes that it’s “cheap, readily available, and dries quickly,” and Duke recommends it since it’s the one used in hospitals. Multiple experts, including Ilyas, Husain, and family medicine doctor George Liakeas, say Purell stands out for its high alcohol content, which matters since alcohol is the antiseptic ingredient that actually kills germs.

Personal Care

Best athlete’s foot treatment

Among the over-the-counter options for treating athlete’s foot, more doctors in our survey recommended Lamisil than any other product. “It can kill the fungus and relieve itching, burning, and scaling of the skin,” says Petkov. Bhuyan credits the active ingredient, terbinafine, which she calls “the most effective in the fastest amount of time at treating athlete’s foot,” and Sonpal says, “it’s the same ingredient that I would give as a prescription.”

Best cotton swabs

Like Band-Aids, Q-tips are the first brand that come to mind when one thinks of cotton swabs, and experts agree that they stand above the competition. “The cotton end seems softer than generic and we all know it’s going in your ear even though the manufacturer says not to,” Ferrara says. Bleyer also acknowledges that many of us use cotton swabs for cleaning our ears (against medical recommendations). If you’re going to do that, she says, at least Q-Tip’s “big bud won’t hurt little ears.” Tutela says they have the “most cotton on the tip.”

Best cotton balls

Although brand name might matter when you’re buying cotton swabs, experts are much more indifferent about cotton balls. “Any generic cotton ball will do,” says Ilyas. Profeta put it even more bluntly when asked about the best cotton balls: “Who cares? Just buy a bag.” Bleyer says that as long as you go with 100% cotton, you can’t go wrong.

Best sleep aid

Melatonin supplements mimic the natural hormone activity secreted by the pineal gland,” Lewis says. “Most people report improved sleep without the ‘hungover’ effect they sometimes get from taking Benadryl.” Pediatrician Amna Husain likes that it’s “non-addictive and not overly drowsy,” and several experts echo Hardy’s point that melatonin is best because it’s “naturally made by the body to help regulate the circadian rhythm.” While melatonin isn’t habit-forming, Harry Oken, an internist and medical advisory board member for Persona Nutrition, says, “I always recommend patients give their brain an occasional ‘day off’ from the sleep aid so it doesn’t start to suppress the body’s own ability to make melatonin.”

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How to Stock Your Medicine Cabinet, According to Experts