Cold Medicines: Liquids vs. Pills

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Cold Medicines Liquids vs. Pills

When you have a cold, nothing sounds better than immediate relief. Thankfully, there are dozens of cold medicines on drug store shelves—but which form is best?

Research has shown that the different forms offer similar (if not exactly identical amounts) of the same medicine per dosage. This means that the greatest difference when you compare liquids to pills is the amount of time it takes for your body to feel the medicine’s benefits. Since most patients wish to feel better as soon as possible, the fastest acting medicines look like the best. However, you may also want that relief to last for a helpful amount of time, and it’s not so clear that liquid medicines win in this category. Examine the following forms of fast-acting medications to decide what type is right for you.

Liquid form

The liquid form of medication is the fastest acting, as the medicine easily enters the bloodstream. No breakdown of compounds or coating is needed in order to reap the benefits of the medication. Since this type of drug is by far the quickest-acting, you may want to consider the longevity of the liquid form. Coating on pills and capsules not only serve the purpose of easier swallowing, but also purposefully delay the amount of medication that can enter your system at one time. The wait time between cold medication dosages averages around four hours, and if your liquid medication wears off in two then you may be tempted to overuse it. Then again, if your symptoms are so severe that you cannot sleep, then you may wish to choose a liquid treatment for immediate relief.

Liquid gels

As stated above, liquid gels are easy to swallow. Although fairly large in size, these gel caps are a friend to anyone who has trouble swallowing pills. Liquid gels are, by far, the winner for the fastest-acting pills. Some pills are filled with liquid or encapsulate a gel-like substance inside liquid. Many of these medicines are covered with gelatin, which your body breaks down in about two minutes. This compound is often derived from animals, but there are also vegan alternatives available. If you are a vegetarian, then be sure to shop at your local health food store for liquid gels that have a vegan coating.


Beware of marketing tricks! Rapid-release pills do work quickly, but not nearly as quickly as the liquid form. Therefore, if you truly want the most effective form of medicine in the shortest amount of time, just switch your form of medication. There are, however, benefits to these “rapid-release” pills. For one thing, you can avoid the often awful-tasting medicine in its liquid form. Also, apart from liquid gels, these pills are the fastest-acting in the pill category.

Chewable pills

How come pharmacists have not come up with delicious, gummy forms of cold medicine? Chewable pills are less effective than the other forms of medication in terms of time—they take longer to kick-in. In addition, the feeling of crunching down on something while you have a headache is not exactly a fun way to treat yourself. On the other hand, this medicinal form can be nice for those who have such a sore throat that they’re struggling to swallow pills. Again, however, this problem can also be avoided through the use of the liquid form.

The hard-to-swallow type

This includes hard tablets lacking any coating. This form takes the longest to enter the bloodstream, and it does not do any favors to those with a sore throat, so it has very few selling points. True, these pills may be cheaper in cost, but the generic brands of liquid gels or liquid formulas may also save you the same amount of money.

Blue, Jessica. Livestrong. Ingredients in Soft Gel Capsules.
Bryan, Dennis, R.Ph., MBA, FAPhA. My Family Doctor Magazine.