Having a stuffy nose can be unpleasant, but doctors say that discomfort is minor compared to the risk of taking over-the-counter decongestants if you have high blood pressure. Though they are generally safe, many popular cold and flu medicines contain decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, which doctors say may aggravate blood pressure problems.
And while products containing such ingredients are required to list such warnings on their labels, the warnings often go unnoticed or ignored by many who assume over-the-counter drugs are safe for one and all. One big reason such warnings may be ignored is because nearly half of the estimated 50 million people in the United States with high blood pressure don't even realize they have a problem.
"The warnings are very often ignored," says Dr. Lynn Smaha, past president of the American Heart Association. "But people who have a history of heart trouble or high blood pressure should be very careful in adhering to the warnings on the labels of these drugs."
The problem is that the active ingredients in many decongestants can't target the blood vessels in the nose. Instead, they constrict blood vessels throughout your body, and raise your blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, that can increase your risk for stroke or heart attack.
Furthermore, the decongestants can work against anti-hypertensive drugs that patients might take for their high blood pressure. There are over-the-counter cold and flu products that claim to be safe for people with high blood pressure, but according to Smaha, they're unlikely to help those looking for a decongestant.