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5 Over-the-Counter Medications That Impact Your Workout

Popping pain relievers or sucking down cough syrup might make you feel better in the short term, but they'll affect your ability in the gym, too. Here's how.

If you reach for a swig of Nyquil to put the kibosh on your cold symptoms or pop an ibuprofen before a workout, listen up. Most likely, half of the meds in your bathroom cabinet will make you sleepy and impair your workout. Imagine the worst: you drop a dumbbell on your foot, you injure yourself because you’re not noticing your body’s true get the picture. The point is, some over-the-counter meds may change the way your body responds to exercise—and not always in a good way. Here's the scoop on the most common OTC meds and expert tips for avoiding potential problems when you hit the gym.

1. Cold & Flu Medications and Decongestants

You're not going to let a little head cold stop you from working out, right? Problem is, some cold and flu medications (like Sudafed, which contains pseudoephedrine) can make your brain a bit foggy, which can lead to injury—so experts say it’s probably best to take a few days off while under their influence. "The entire class of OTC cold and flu medications have some sedating properties," says Michael Lanigan, M.D., clinical assistant professor and director of the urgent care center at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Plus, taking decongestants may increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which could put you at a higher risk of stroke or other cardiovascular issues.

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2. Sleep Medications

Tossing and turning all night? Taking a sleeping pill on occasion can help, but its effects may spill over into your next morning's workout. The key is when you took the medication and how much sleep you got, says Lanigan. "If you took an over-the-counter sleep aid and didn’t get a full night of sleep (seven to eight hours at least) you'll probably be drowsy the first hours that you are awake, and exercise during that time may not be a good idea,” he says. “Work out later in the day after the effects of the medication have worn off.”

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3. Allergy Pills / Antihistamines

During allergy season, allergy medications may help you avoid a sneezing fit in the middle of a bench press set. Just take care to choose the right medication. Allergy meds fall into two classes: sedating and non-sedating. If you plan to work out, take a non-drowsy one like loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), or cetirizine (Zyrtec), says Jill Sailors, Pharm.D., assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. Otherwise, you’ll risk the same drowsy side effects Lanigan mentions above.

4. Pain Relievers

Popping a pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen before a workout can definitely help you get past soreness or muscle fatigue, says Lanigan. "You will get the anti-inflammatory property of the medication as well as the pain relief." But if you’re taking pain relievers due to cold or flu, you might be better off resting, Lanigan warns—and it’s also important to make sure you’re not masking major pain from a serious sprain or slipped disk. "You must be able to distinguish between normal soreness and an actual injury."

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5. Cough Medicine

If you’re taking cough medicine to get through your workout, you probably shouldn’t be working out at all, says Lanigan. “Like cold and flu remedies, most cough medicines have one or several decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or dextromethorphine.” And these will affect your workout by making you groggy, which—again—could increase your injury risk when working out. Cough medications without dextromethorphine would not have any effect on exercise if taken as prescribed, says Sailors.

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