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Cold and Flu Medications at Work

The cold and flu season is here.

The most effective way of avoiding the severe effects of the flu is by yearly flu vaccinations (often called “flu shots”). For colds, the recommended treatment is rest and fluids, however many workers will attempt to “soldier on” and try to alleviate the symptoms with a range of medications.

And that can be a problem to work health and safety.

That’s because some cold and flu medications have potential side effects, such as drowsiness, lightheadedness and dizziness that can impair a worker’s performance. Some medications can also produce a positive result in a workplace drug test.

So what exactly is in our everyday cold and flu medications? Here is a quick run down of the common active ingredients and potential implications.

Pseudoephedrine: Included as a decongestant, related side effects such as nausea, dizziness and insomnia (1) can adversely affect safe work performance. Medications containing pseudoephedrine require the presentation of a photo ID. This is because pseudoephedrine is a precursor in the manufacture of illegal amphetamines. As such, it may produce a positive result for amphetamines in a workplace drug test.

Phenylephrine: Also a decongestant and while it may not be quite as effective as pseudoephedrine, it does not have the significant side effects and can be purchased off the shelf under the label, “PE”. Phenylephrine will not produce a positive result in a workplace drug screening test.

Pholcodine: Included as a cough suppressant in both liquid and tablet form, its effectiveness is unclear (2) and it can cause dizziness and nausea. Pholcodine can also produce a positive result in a workplace drug test. There are alternatives such as dextromethorphan that will not produce a positive result that may be equally effective and without adverse consequences to safe work performance.

Codeine: Contained in cold and flu medications to treat headaches and pain, although it is not as effective as paracetamol or ibuprofen. At certain doses, codeine may be impairing and can produce a positive result for opiates in an onsite drug screening test.

When it comes to cold and flu medications at work, our best advice is that workers always consult their health professional as to the most appropriate treatment for their symptoms, considering the implications for the work activities they perform. Raising awareness of the potential impact of cold and flu medications on workplace safety, and highlighting the alternative medications that are available, is an important discussion at this time of year. DASA can help with this. For more information, get in touch via:


DASA (Drug and Alcohol Solutions Australia) is proud to be leading the way in workplace drug and alcohol testing services throughout Australia. Whether your need is for workplace drug and workplace alcohol testing, advice on drug and alcohol policy or ideas on how to communicate your workplace expectations, policies and procedures to your staff, DASA can help. We have the experience, technical expertise and people to lead you to the right solution.


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