Upper Respiratory Agents




image Top 100 drug; image Key drug. The antihistamine diphenhydramine is the earliest antihistamine that is commonly used.




Oral Decongestants

• Nasal congestion caused by the common cold, hay fever, or other upper respiratory allergies

• Nasal congestion associated with sinusitis and eustachian tube congestion

• Unlabeled use: treatment for mild to moderate urinary stress incontinence

Topical Nasal Decongestants

• Symptomatic relief of nasal and nasopharyngeal mucosal congestion caused by the common cold, sinusitis, hay fever, or other upper respiratory allergies

• Adjunctive therapy for middle ear infection by decreasing congestion around the eustachian ostia

• Relief of ear block and pressure pain in air travel


• Symptomatic relief of symptoms associated with perennial and seasonal allergic rhinitis, vasomotor rhinitis, and allergic conjunctivitis; temporary relief of runny nose and sneezing caused by the common cold

• Skin: allergic and nonallergic pruritic symptoms; mild, uncomplicated urticaria and angioedema

• Amelioration of allergic reactions to blood or plasma, dermatographism, and adjunctive therapy in anaphylactic reactions

Intranasal Corticosteroids

• Vasomotor rhinitis and relief of symptoms of seasonal or perennial rhinitis when effectiveness of antihistamines or tolerance to treatment develops

Intranasal Mast Cell Stabilizers

• Prevention and treatment of allergic rhinitis

Leukotriene receptor antagonists

Treatment of allergic rhinitis and perennial allergic rhinitis


Narcotic Antitussives

• Codeine for suppression of cough induced by chemical or mechanical respiratory tract irritation

Nonnarcotic Antitussives

• Dextromethorphan HBr (Robitussin) for suppression of nonproductive cough

• Benzonatate (Tessalon Perles) for symptomatic relief of cough


• Guaifenesin may provide some symptomatic relief of respiratory conditions characterized by productive or nonproductive cough.

The seven classes of drugs discussed in this chapter are used to treat a variety of upper respiratory conditions. The two most common conditions in primary care practice that require these medications are upper respiratory viral infection (URI or viral rhinitis) and allergic rhinitis (hay fever). Bacterial infections are covered in the section on antibiotics.

Decongestants and antihistamines are commonly used both OTC and by prescription for treatment of a variety of conditions. Decongestants are used as first-line drugs for URIs. Antihistamines are first-line treatment for allergic rhinitis. Leukotriene receptor antagonists may be used as first-line treatment for allergic rhinitis but are typically prescribed when other treatments fail to relieve symptoms. The antihistamines most commonly seen in primary care practice are discussed here.

Intranasal steroids and cromolyn are generally considered second-line treatment for upper respiratory conditions. Oral formulations of these drugs are used for lower respiratory conditions. These drugs are discussed in detail in Chapter 14; only their intranasal use in upper respiratory conditions is discussed here.

Antitussives and expectorants are used as adjunct therapy in upper respiratory and lower respiratory conditions. Combination drugs that contain these different categories of medications are available both OTC and by prescription. These combination product ingredients change rapidly, and this may be very confusing to the consumer. Often, OTC combinations purchased by patients contain medications that are not indicated for the condition for which the combination is labeled, and use can be counterproductive to clearing up symptoms. Many nighttime formulations contain alcohol and acetaminophen, which should not be consumed together. Some consumers use products incorrectly, taking an antihistamine for congestion when actually a decongestant is needed. Products with analgesics are often used by patients even in the absence of pain or fever. Many consumers, particularly the elderly, use these products without considering the ingredients and possible drug interactions with medications they are already taking, or preexisting medical conditions that may be adversely affected by certain medications. An example would be patients with hypertension, glaucoma, or urinary retention who take pseudoephedrine for congestion. Many patients self-prescribe OTCs for respiratory problems, so query patients specifically about use of OTC products. (See Chapter 7 for information on OTC use.)

Despite these problems, commonly prescribed combination medications are important in the treatment of respiratory problems and include antihistamine/decongestant combinations (e.g., Allegra-D, Claritin-D, Zyrtec-D), decongestant/expectorant combinations (e.g., Guaifed PD), and antitussive/expectorant combinations (e.g., Robitussin AC, DM), which can be useful in the treatment of multisymptom upper and lower respiratory conditions, if used appropriately. A knowledgeable clinician may suggest special formulations that are available OTC for patients with hypertension (e.g., Coricidin HBP, Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold), and several products are sugar and alcohol free. Despite the multiple combination preparations that are available both OTC and by prescription, many authorities recommend prescribing single-ingredient medications to avoid drug errors and overmedicating.

Therapeutic Overview of Upper Respiratory Infection and Allergic Rhinitis

Anatomy and Physiology

The respiratory system is composed of the upper air passage structure, including the nasal passages, paranasal sinuses, pharynx, and larynx, and the lower air passages, including the trachea, bronchi, and lungs. Air moves through the upper passages (the conducting portion) into the lung (respiratory portion), where gas exchange occurs through the alveoli of the lung. The respiratory airway is lined with epithelial tissue that contains mucous glands and surface goblet cells that synthesize and secrete thick mucus. Below the larynx to the ends of the bronchi, the airways are lined with columnar epithelial cells that contain hair-like projections or cilia, which continuously beat in an upward motion toward the pharynx. Inhaled irritants stick to the mucus and are moved upward by the cilia to the pharynx, where they are swallowed or expectorated.


URIs are often viral in origin, and allergic rhinitis results from an allergic reaction that may have nothing to do with infection. A secondary bacterial infection is common in both URIs and allergic rhinitis that are untreated. Acute sinusitis and otitis media are the most common complications of URIs, although pneumonia may develop in susceptible patients. Critical decisions revolve around determining whether the problem is viral or bacterial, and whether the process has an allergic component.

Disease Process

Upper Respiratory Infection

Disease insult to the respiratory tract disturbs the normal physiologic processes: Production of mucus is dramatically increased, but the mucus thickens with dehydration or fever; the mucociliary mechanism is inhibited, and the cilia become sticky and unable to move. Patients cough or swallow enormous amounts of mucus.

URIs are caused by rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, and other viruses. Nasal congestion, watery rhinorrhea, and sneezing are present in 50% to 70% of patients within the first 3 days. Sore throat is reported by 50% of patients in the first 2 days. Other nonspecific symptoms include headache and general malaise. Symptoms are self-limiting, lasting a few days to a few weeks. On physical examination, the nasal mucosa is reddened and edematous with a watery discharge. Diagnosis is based on clinical observation, after absence of signs of bacterial infection is noted—purulent nasal discharge, red tympanic membrane, change in color of discharge, or high fever. URIs should be evaluated by a clinician, particularly if there is any risk of serious disease, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, which is a possible but unlikely differential in the United States.

Allergic Rhinitis

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is caused by a variety of irritations, most commonly allergy to pollen: trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and ragweed in the fall. Perennial allergic rhinitis usually is caused by allergy to dust, molds, or mites. The symptoms may be similar to URI symptoms, except that they may be more persistent, may fluctuate, and often are related to exposure to allergens. Sneezing, injected conjunctiva, watery itchy eyes, red edematous eyelids, and watery rhinorrhea are often prominent. On physical examination, the turbinates may be pale or violaceous because of venous engorgement rather than red and erythematous as in URI.

Mechanism of Action


Decongestants are sympathomimetic amines that act to stimulate β-adrenergic receptors of vascular smooth muscle and cause vasoconstriction. This results in nasal decongestion, contraction of gastrointestinal and urinary sphincters, pupil dilation, and decreased pancreatic β-cell secretion. Pseudoephedrine also has β-adrenergic properties that cause relaxation of the bronchi.

In the sympathetic nervous system, adrenergic effector cells contain two distinct receptors, the α- and β-receptors. Sympathomimetic drugs mimic the action of norepinephrine on sympathetic effector organs, thereby affecting the adrenergic receptors. Important α-adrenergic activities include (1) vasoconstriction of arterioles, leading to increased blood pressure; (2) dilation of the pupils; (3) intestinal relaxation; and (4) bladder sphincter contraction. β-Receptors are divided into β1– and β2-receptors because some drugs affect some, but not all, β-receptors. β1-adrenergic activity includes (1) cardioacceleration and (2) increased myocardial contractility, whereas β1 stimulation leads to (1) vasodilation of skeletal muscle, (2) bronchodilation, (3) uterine relaxation, and (4) bladder relaxation.

Pseudoephedrine HCl/phenylephrine is an α-adrenergic receptor agonist (sympathomimetic) that produces vasoconstriction by stimulating α-receptors in the mucosa of the respiratory tract. It also reduces tissue edema and nasal congestion, increases nasal airway patency, promotes drainage of sinus secretions, and opens obstructed eustachian ostia. Pseudoephedrine also is used in the illegal manufacturing of methamphetamine. State and federal regulations now restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine, and it is stored behind the pharmacy counter. In some states, it is available only by prescription. Several manufacturers are using formulations that contain phenylephrine in nonprescription preparations.

Phenylephrine acts directly on α-adrenergic receptors and can be administered orally or topically to relieve nasal congestion in URI, sinusitis, and allergic rhinitis. The efficacy of oral phenylephrine has not been studied extensively.

Nasal sprays or inhaled (topical application of) decongestants to the nasal mucous membranes cause vasoconstriction, resulting in shrinkage, which helps to promote drainage and improve breathing through the nasal passages. These inhaled agents produce reduced systemic effects compared with oral preparations, achieving decongestion without causing sudden or wide changes in blood pressure, cardiac stimulation, or vascular redistribution.

Oxymetazoline is a topical direct-acting sympathomimetic amine that acts on the α-adrenergic receptors of the nasal mucosa, causing vasoconstriction and resulting in decreased blood flow and decreased nasal congestion.


Antihistamines compete for histamine at the H1-receptor sites and are used to treat immunoglobulin (Ig)E-mediated allergy. Antihistamine therapy is helpful in treating allergic rhinitis and urticaria in most, but not all, patients. Antihistamines antagonize the pharmacologic effects of histamine. They do not inactivate histamine or block histamine release, antibody production, or antigen–antibody interactions. They also have anticholinergic (drying), antipruritic, and sedative effects to varying degrees. These drugs are classified by the amount of sedation they cause. Azelastine is a topical antihistamine nasal spray with few adverse systemic side effects that is used to treat allergic and vasomotor rhinitis.

Intranasal Corticosteroids

The steroids used in intranasal products have potent glucocorticoid and weak mineralocorticoid activity. Glucocorticoids inhibit cells, including mast cells, eosinophils, neutrophils, macrophages, lymphocytes, and mediators such as histamine, leukotrienes, and cytokines. They exert direct local antiinflammatory effects with minimal systemic effects. Intranasal corticosteroids effectively control the four major symptoms of allergic rhinitis: rhinorrhea, congestion, sneezing, and nasal itch. They are helpful in managing moderate to severe disease and are used in treating both seasonal and perennial allergic rhinitis. These medications must be used consistently on a daily basis for effectiveness, and maximum effects may not be noted for several days to weeks. For details on the immune system, see Chapter 68.

Intranasal Mast Cell Stabilizers

Cromolyn sodium is an OTC intranasal mast cell stabilizer that is used as a preventative agent that is taken in advance of allergen exposure. It is an antiinflammatory agent that has no intrinsic bronchodilator, antihistaminic, vasoconstrictor, or glucocorticoid activity. Cromolyn inhibits sensitized and mast cell degranulation that occurs after exposure to specific antigens. The drug inhibits the release of mediators, histamine, and slow-reacting substance of anaphylaxis (SRS-A) from the mast cell. It inhibits calcium from entering the mast cell, resulting in the prevention of mediator release. It is effective in reducing rhinorrhea, sneezing, and nasal itch, but it has minimal effect on nasal congestion. Cromolyn acts locally on tissue, inhibiting the release of chemical mediators by preventing mast cell degranulation. It has an excellent safety profile and minimal adverse effects consisting of nasal irritation, stinging, and sneezing. Cromolyn must be taken properly as a nebulized aerosol, inhaled through the mouth, or swallowed orally four to six times a day, and its effect may not be seen for 4 to 6 weeks to months. For details, see Chapter 14.

Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists

Montelukast sodium, a leukotriene receptor antagonist, causes inhibition of airway cysteinyl leukotriene receptors (CysTLs), which are products of arachidonic acid metabolism that are released from mast cells and eosinophils. The CysTL type 1 receptor is found in airway smooth muscle cells, airway macrophages, and proinflammatory cells such as eosinophils and myeloid stem cells. CysTLs are released from the nasal mucosa after allergen exposure and are associated with symptoms of allergic rhinitis.


Codeine and dextromethorphan both act centrally by acting on the cough center of the medulla to suppress cough. Dextromethorphan is the d-isomer of codeine that lacks the analgesic and addictive properties of codeine. However, it is not as effective as codeine in depressing the cough reflex. Benzonatate (dextromethorphan) anesthetizes stretch receptors in the respiratory passages, reducing the cough reflex at its source.


Guaifenesin increases respiratory tract fluid secretions and helps to loosen bronchial secretions by reducing adhesiveness and tissue surface tension. By reducing the viscosity of secretions, guaifenesin increases the efficacy of the mucociliary mechanism in removing accumulated secretions from the upper and lower airways. As a result, nonproductive coughs become more productive, less frequent, and less irritating to the airways. Guaifenesin products that are marketed as sustained or timed release have come under FDA scrutiny. Timed-release OTC drugs require FDA approval because the FDA must ensure that the product releases its active ingredients safely and effectively, sustaining the intended effect over the entire time in which the product is intended to work. Many sustained-release products had been on the market without receiving this approval. Guaifenesin is classed as questionably effective in some studies.

Treatment Principles

Standardized Guidelines

• A comprehensive algorithm of Treatment Guidelines for Upper Respiratory Illness in Children and Adults from the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI) can be found at http://www.guideline.gov/algorithm/5564/NGC-5564_1.html. Algorithms from previous guidelines for viral upper respiratory infection (VURI), pharyngitis, rhinitis, and sinusitis were incorporated into this algorithm.

• American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for cough and the common cold provide recommendations and algorithms for care of acute cough due to viral infection (http://www.guideline.gov/summary/summary.aspx?doc_id=8654&nbr=004819).

Evidence-Based Recommendations

• The VURI in adults and children in the above-mentioned guideline contains an annotated bibliography and discussion of the evidence that supports the recommendations.

• According to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in allergic rhinitis, oral antihistamines were used first in rhinitis and were found to help control itching, sneezing, rhinorrhea, and stuffiness in most patients; however, they do not alleviate ocular symptoms. Nasal corticosteroids are indicated for patients who do not respond to antihistamines and are considered the most potent medication for the treatment of rhinitis. Nasal cromolyn is less effective than nasal corticosteroids. Intranasal antihistamines are effective in treating nasal symptoms of seasonal, perennial, and vasomotor rhinitis but offer no benefit over conventional treatment. Oral decongestants decrease nasal mucosa swelling, and this reduces nasal congestion.

Cardinal Points of Treatment

Upper Respiratory Illness

• Hand washing is the most effective way to prevent the spread of VURI. Because this is viewed as mundane and common knowledge, many clinicians fail to reinforce this message and further fail to act as role models by washing their own hands at the beginning of each patient encounter.

• It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of serious illness in VURI and allergic rhinitis. Symptoms such as upper and lower airway obstruction and severe headache require prompt evaluation and care.

• Do not treat cold symptoms with aspirin-containing products for anyone younger than age 21.


image Do not use cold or cough medications for children younger than 6 years.

• Avoid acetaminophen in patients with liver dysfunction.

• In adults, evidence suggests that zinc gluconate may decrease the duration of a cold if started within 24 hours of onset; however, studies are conflicting. Adverse reactions such as nausea and bad taste may limit its usefulness. Loss of smell has occurred. No current studies indicate that zinc has effectiveness in treating cold symptoms in children.

• Findings in the medical literature do not support the use of echinacea in preventing VURI

Allergic Rhinitis

• Allergy testing is rarely helpful in diagnosing allergic rhinitis but may be useful in patients with multiple allergen sensitivities. The goal of therapy is to relieve symptoms, and avoidance of allergens is the first step in this process.

• Controversy is ongoing regarding the use of medication vs. immunotherapy. Risk–cost analyses have not been performed; however, patients with moderate to severe perennial allergies may benefit most from immunotherapy.


• Patients with cough associated with viral respiratory infection can be treated with a first-generation antihistamine/decongestant combination preparation. Naproxen can also be used to help to decrease cough. Newer-generation, nonsedating antihistamines are ineffective in reducing cough and should not be used.

• Current recommendations have been revised to narrow recommended inhaled anticholinergic agents to a single drug, ipratropium bromide, for cough due to URI or bronchitis. The current guideline supports the use of codeine only in chronic bronchitis and not in cough due to URI. Peripheral and central cough suppressants have limited efficacy in cough due to URI. OTC combination cold medications, other than antihistamine/decongestant combinations, and preparations that contain zinc are not recommended for acute cough due to the common cold.


New management guidelines are quite different and now suggest amoxicillin/clavulanate as first line therapy and changes in duration of therapy.

Nonpharmacologic Treatment

• Nonpharmacologic treatment for URI consists of rest as needed and increased fluids, especially water. Adequate hydration (called bronchial toilet) may be more helpful in symptom relief than medication because it helps to decrease cough, thin secretions, and hydrate tissues.

• Use of a teaspoon of honey has been shown to be effective in reducing cough in small children.

• For nonpharmacologic treatment of allergic rhinitis, identify environmental precipitants, which may include time of year, work and home environment, and pets. Implement strategies designed to reduce these factors. Avoid outdoor allergens, use air conditioning in home and car, exercise outdoors in the afternoon when pollen counts are typically low, use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in the home, and use a dryer rather than a clothesline, where clothes can collect airborne pollen.

• For indoor allergens, use strategies for dust, pet, mold, and cockroach avoidance.

• Normal saline nasal sprays or nasal irrigation, twice daily, may help reduce postnasal drip, sneezing, and congestion.

• Ask patients if they are using complimentary or alternative medicines, many of which may interact with drugs given for upper respiratory problems.

image See Table 15-1 for a list of potential herbal-drug interactions.

TABLE 15-1

image Complementary and Alternative Medications Used for Respiratory Problems That May Have Drug Interactions


Pharmacologic Treatment

• Patient history reveals which symptoms are most troublesome and can be targeted. Decongestants, antihistamines, or a combination thereof are proven effective. Antitussives or expectorants may be helpful. Because URIs are viral in origin, antibiotics are not indicated. Many patients must have this important fact explained to them.

• Pharmacologic treatment of allergic rhinitis involves identifying and targeting symptoms that are most problematic to the patient; these may include sneezing, runny nose, itching, and nasal congestion.

• Treat mild, intermittent symptoms with an antihistamine, preferably nonsedating, or a decongestant. If the patient is unable to take an oral antihistamine, consider the use of a nasal antihistamine, intranasal cromolyn, or leukotriene receptor antagonist.

• Treat moderate, frequent symptoms with a regular- to high-dose intranasal corticosteroid. Add an oral or a nasal antihistamine and decongestant, if necessary.

• Treat moderate, persistent symptoms with a combination regimen, consisting of intranasal corticosteroids plus a nonsedating or intranasal antihistamine and decongestant, if necessary.

• Treat severe symptoms with a combination regimen consisting of a nonsedating antihistamine with or without a decongestant and intranasal corticosteroid. Consider the use of an oral steroid for 5 days, as well as the use of oxymetazoline as needed for no longer than 3 days.


image Pseudoephedrine also is used in the illegal manufacturing of methamphetamine. State and federal regulations now restrict the sale of pseudoephedrine, and it is stored behind the pharmacy counter. In some states, it is available only by prescription.


• These common drugs, which are widely available without prescription, are very effective in treating nasal congestion. Decongestants are sympathomimetic amines used to relieve nasal congestion caused by colds, allergies, and URIs; they also promote sinus drainage and relieve eustachian tube congestion. Oral forms are often used in combination with antihistamines and expectorants in both OTC and prescription doses (see Table 15-1). Topical nasal decongestants provide direct relief to swollen nasal membranes and sometimes are used to decrease congestion of the eustachian tube in middle ear infection and to relieve pressure and blockage of the ear during air travel. Decongestants should be used with caution in patients with hypertension, cardiovascular and peripheral vascular disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes mellitus, prostatic hypertrophy, urinary retention, and increased intraocular pressure because of their sympathomimetic effects. They are contraindicated in patients with mitral valve prolapse and cardiac palpitations. They also have many side effects that can limit their use, particularly in the elderly.

• Oral decongestants generally do not cause sedation but may cause systemic effects, including nervousness, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping, particularly in infants and the elderly. The clinical problems most often seen with oral decongestants include tachycardia, nervousness, insomnia, palpitations, headache, and irritability, which may be poorly tolerated in the frail elderly; patients with poorly controlled hypertension may experience an increase in blood pressure. The provider should question the patient thoroughly about his history of decongestant use. Patients may voice complaints of their “heart racing,” or that the drug keeps them awake. Data suggest that oral decongestants may be used cautiously in patients with controlled hypertension. Sustained-release formulations may have less effect on the cardiovascular system. However, because they may antagonize the effects of antihypertensive medications, alternative agents such as topical decongestants should be used for these patients. The FDA has determined that the combination of pseudoephedrine and caffeine is not recognized as safe and effective for OTC use. Cough and cold formulations for children under the age of 6 are not recommended, and most manufacturers have removed these products from the market because of so many cases of accidental overdosing.

• Topical decongestants have little systemic effect, but because of rebound congestion (rhinitis medicamentosa), they should be used only in acute conditions for no longer than 3 consecutive days. Rebound congestion is treated by gradual withdrawal, one nare at a time. Saline nasal spray is often helpful. Overall, topical decongestants are more effective than oral ones, but oral decongestants have longer durations of action and are less irritating.


• Antihistamines are H1-receptor antagonists that are often used alone or in combination with decongestants and expectorants to relieve symptoms associated with perennial and seasonal allergies with associated rhinitis, vasomotor rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, and cold symptoms such as sneezing and runny nose. They also are used to relieve allergic and nonallergic pruritic symptoms, to alleviate mild urticaria and angioedema, for prophylaxis against allergic reactions to blood or plasma products, and as adjunctive therapy in anaphylactic reactions Certain antihistamines also have antiemetic effects and are useful for nausea, vomiting, vertigo, and motion sickness.

• Many OTC cold remedies contain antihistamines; however, their use in the treatment of cold symptoms is controversial. Antihistamines are best used to treat allergic symptoms such as rhinorrhea; watery, itchy eyes; postnasal drainage; and sneezing. Decongestants are preferred for treatment of cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion caused by swollen nasal membranes.

• In general, antihistamines are not recommended to treat lower respiratory tract symptoms, including asthma, because some of their anticholinergic effects may cause thickening of respiratory secretions and may impair expectoration. Several evidence-based reports, however, indicate that antihistamines can be safely used in asthmatic patients with severe perennial allergies without exacerbating the asthma.

• Two generations of antihistamines are available. First-generation agents are usually available OTC and often are used before a health care provider is consulted. Most cause sedation and have sometimes been included in sleep aids. However, they remain highly effective in symptomatic treatment, and some products have been released (by prescription only) that provide new delivery systems that decrease drowsiness.

• Second-generation antihistamines are favored by clinicians for their efficacy/safety ratio and rapid onset of relief from sneezing, pruritus, and watery rhinorrhea. Most of these are now available OTC. All antihistamines are not very effective against nasal congestion and may even compound or contribute to its development. Local antihistamine nasal sprays and various ocular antihistamines are also effective in less than 30 minutes.

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Jan 1, 2017 | Posted by in PHARMACY | Comments Off on Upper Respiratory Agents

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