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Theraflu Ingredient Product Labeling: Deceptive Advertising or Savvy Marketing?

November 11th, 2007

Earlier tonight, my mother purchased two boxes of Theraflu in preparation for the upcoming flu season. In the store, each of the two boxes appeared to be different formulas of the same brand; one was designated as a “Flu and Sore Throat” remedy, while the other was supposed to be a “Nighttime Severe Cold” formula. The labels even had different background colors:



However, after looking at the labels, we noticed that the active Theraflu ingredients of the two varieties were exactly the same! Even the warnings, indicated uses, dosage directions, everything was the same. The two labels were exact duplicates of each other:



The only actual difference between the two versions was the flavoring. Unfortunately, they did not bother to list the inactive ingredients on either of the labels, so it’s hard to tell if those lemon and apple cinnamon flavors are really “natural” or not.

Meanwhile, if we look back at the front of the two labels, we can see another curious feature. Under the main label headings where it lists the symptoms that these medicines are supposed to relieve, they appear to be somewhat different until we closely inspect the list. In reality, the two labels are listing exactly the same symptoms, but with the words rearranged in a different order!

So if anyone out there is thinking that the “Nighttime Severe Cold” formula (notice that they even added a little moon and stars picture in there for added effect) might help them fall asleep faster, while the presumably non-drowsy “Flu and Sore Throat” version could help them get through the day better than the other kind, it seems that they are sadly mistaken because there is no difference between these two formulas.

All of this raises the question: is this a case of deceptive advertising because these two varieties of Theraflu are being marketed as different products but are substanially the same thing and treat the exact same symptoms? Or should the drug companies be able to market and label their products however they want as long as they disclose the active ingredients? Well folks, to quote the infamous words of Fox News, “we report, you decide”…

UPDATE 1/20/08: It seems that many of you are finding my page through the search results. This is good! In this update, I will answer some of the questions that you have been asking in the search queries. If you have any other questions that are not answered here or in the main article, please feel free to mention these in the comment section below.

Q: What are the TheraFlu active ingredients?

A: Acetaminophen (650 mg), Pheniramine maleate (20 mg), Phenylephrine Hydrochloride (10 mg)

Q: What are the TheraFlu inactive ingredients?

A: Aspartame, Acesulfame K, Citric Acid, D&C Yellow 10, FD&C Red 40, Maltodextrin, Flavoring, Silicon Dioxide, Sodium Citrate, Sucrose, Tribasic Calcium Phosphate

Note that both sets of ingredients apply to the two varieties of TheraFlu shown on this page. If you happen to encounter a different variety, the ingredients may be slightly different, although in this case, both varieties had exactly the same ingredients.

Helpful Resources:

PDR Guide to Over-the-Counter Drugs

Complete Guide to Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs

21 Responses to “Theraflu Ingredient Product Labeling: Deceptive Advertising or Savvy Marketing?”

  1. comment number 1 by: bloggernoob

    haha. nice marketing. i have both the regular theraflu and nighttime. i bought a mixed combo pack at costco. i thought the nighttime had some additional stuff in it. but i guess it’s just marketing.

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia

    Yes, it’s definitely “just marketing”. In fact, there was actually a third variety of TheraFlu that my mother had noticed during the same shopping trip, but I didn’t have a chance to post the picture because we didn’t actually buy it. However, it had the exact same ingredients as the other two but with distinctly different labeling.

    This is one of those things that John Stossel or one of the other 20/20 reporters could use for a story on the show. They’ve done these kinds of “buyer beware” and consumer reports types of stories before. It seems like this would be a perfect fit.

  3. comment number 3 by: Anonymous

    The nighttime combo pack is two slightly different formulations.

    One reason so many of the drugs will have the same ingredients is because the highly active pseudoephedrine has been pushed back behind pharmacy counters. It was the big difference between the “Cough and Sore Throat” and “Runny Nose and Cold” versions of most meds- not just Thera-flu.

    It is funny that the Flu med has an antihistamine but is not labeled as drowsy or nighttime. All antihistamines MAY cause marked drowsiness and it should be shown on the label.

    Why brand the same formula behind two labels? 1)People don’t know what they need and don’t need. 2) People don’t read the labels, just look at the cover. If it says it will get rid of the symptoms they have- they’re buying it! Even if it lists extra symptoms (meaning it likely has unneccessary drugs for the person- like fever reducer- when the person only has a cold). Of course, people will overmedicate themselves and take it anyway.

  4. comment number 4 by: Alex

    The important question for me is “does it work?” I am going to try it to find out.

  5. comment number 5 by: Karlonia


    Wow, you have managed to post one of the best comments that I’ve had so far! And you’re right, the ignorance of the general public (people not knowing what they need, not reading labels, etc.) is a big factor here.

    The quasi-ban on pseudoephedrine and the advent of our overmedicated society are significant issues also; in fact, I should probably write separate articles on these.


    Yes, that is the important question - whether or not it works may depend on the dosage and your body chemistry, but if it does work at least we’ll know that the company is able to back up its claims.

    If it doesn’t work, we can search for alternatives, although it would be even better if we could just find a way to reliably prevent or cure things like colds and flu so that we don’t have to mess around with only treating the symptoms.

  6. comment number 6 by: john

    look at the inactive ingredients, a list of exactly what our bodies don’t need esp when sick. Take a tylenol (acetominophen) for body aches and eat fresh foods and plenty of water/tea, rest. Not complicated folks.

  7. comment number 7 by: maria

    i have seen this before if you look at the active ingredients in Panadol Womens and Panadol Ultra it is the same, but the price of the Womens panadol is more. Can someone tell me why? These manufacturers are doing anything to make a profit, i personally have stopped purchasing Panadol products and i am going to stop using theraflu as well

  8. comment number 8 by: Anonymous

    all the nightime remedies used tyo have some alcohol in it that would make you drowsy. they stopped that but the products are still sold “refolmulated”

  9. comment number 9 by: James

    Although I completely agree that consumers best serve themselves by paying attention to the label of the products they buy, one thing you are neglecting is the placebo effect, which is why the best medical studies are placebo controlled! If someone takes the night time Theraflu because they BELIEVE it will make them sleepy or is more efficacious it likely will make them feel sleepy or better than if they took the day time Theraflu at night and if these products are the same price than I fail to see any malicious intent by the manufacturer, especially since they don’t claim to have different effects. In all I think this is a bad example of “deceptive” advertising, but still agree that people should educate themselves about the products they buy!

  10. comment number 10 by: prn007

    These type of combination products are not recommended by Consumer Reports. You should only take meds that are targeted to specific symptoms. There are no magic elixirs.
    Both of these products have an antihistamine which is for allergies and won’t help a cold or flu so why take it?

    Furthermore, the decongestant Phenylephrine hydrochloride is a less effective decongestant than pseudoephedrine the old Pseudo fed That you can still get by going to the pharmacy counter and asking for the generic version which is very inexpensive.

    Lastly, acetaminophen is an inexpensive pain reliever you can buy separately. Be aware that acetaminophen can be very hard on your liver. Aspirin or ibuprofen might be a better choice.

    Save yourself a lot of money and take a generic pseudoephedrine and aspirin. Probably less than 20 cents a dose and more effective. Great hangover cure also.

  11. comment number 11 by: Crystal

    There is one difference. On the side of the box, it has other ingredients not listed on the back. The Flu and Sore Throat has 41mg of sodium, while the Nighttime Severe Cold has 51 mg sodium and 10 mg of potassium. Are these just for shelf life or is there more to it?

  12. comment number 12 by: ASD

    hey, did you just update this because the pictures of the backs of the products just changed so now they are completely identical, what gives?

  13. comment number 13 by: Karlonia


    I have not changed the pictures since the original posting. However, it is possible that the labels on the Theraflu currently being sold in stores is currently different from these pictures because the posting was from about three years ago. If I have the time later this month, I could do a follow up on this to see if there have been any significant changes to the labels or ingredients.

  14. comment number 14 by: Serenity

    Yes well now they have changed, the nitetime ingredient has the dex (long name,dont know the spelling) but its a Dex word that is in most cough meds. it can make you drowsy. I have used Theraflu for few years and feel that it helps my symptoms, brings down fever, loosens mucus in throat and nose. They do have deceptive marketing I give them that but I will still use them.

  15. comment number 15 by: Pilar

    I know this posts were from several years ago, however I wanted to share my own experience. I bought 2 Theraflu products: 1) Theraflu Warming Relief Flu & Sore Throat and 2) Theraflu Nightime Severe Cold & Cough. These 2 are the “syrup” version of the little hot tea packets. Well, guess what? EXACT SAME INGREDIENTS IN THE EXACT SAME QUANTITIES (Active and Inactive). I have lately become a customer service snob so I decided to call them and find out why are they marketing 2 different products (actually 3 if you include “COLD & SINUS”—> all ingredients and products info at Theraflu.com). I am very familiar with active ingredients, medications, etc. For example, the presense of Diphenhydramine HCI in this product is for it’s “cough suppressant” effect, however they have to list it as “antihistamine” as it is it’s other use.
    When I called them, I was put on and off on hold for about 20 minutes total for the representative to “get some information” (not exaggerating, my phone times the calls), for a total of 24 minutes on the phone (only got to actually talk to someone for 4min)
    The only response that I could finally get from a supervisor, Kenneth, was “it is a marketing decision”, to which my response was “Well, it is deceiving. I bought 2 product thinking they were different, when they were actually the same” He said “I’m sorry for the inconvenience and I will share your comments with the appropriate department, OK?” At that point I felt that he really didn’t care nor understand my point. When asked if I had any other questions, I said Yes, I would like a refund for this 2nd product that I purchased as I do not feel a need to have 2 of the same after feeling deceived with something it’s MEDICINE, not bread, not ham, not ice cream… MEDICINE. So after me asking him if he needed my contact information, he took it down, said I could send the product back (for which I requested a self-address pre-paid package), and get a refund.

    Was I satisfied even though I got a refund? Not really. How do I know? Because I won’t buy any Novartis products again. I won’t trust a company that feels a “marketing” need of deceiving to increase their sales. If your product is good and along with that you offer good consumer service, trust me, you’ve got the secret recipe ;)

  16. comment number 16 by: Shelley

    An interesting post. I know it’s an old post, but I stumbled on it after I bought Some Theraflu Sever Cough and Cold nighttime (the syrup version) because the safeway didn’t have the Theraflu Flu and Sore Throat syrup I usually buy.

    Well, it may be somewhat deceptive marketing, but I’m not complaining today because I ended up with a bottle of the mix of ingredients that works for me, lol! I don’t like to take medicine if I really don’t need it, but sometimes I get a reallllly bad cold and this helps me get through the day.

    I don’t know if all theraflu products have changed, or if the packets just differ from the syrups, but the bottles I have don’t have Pheniramine maleate, instead they have Diphenhydramine HCL. But the Severe Cough and Cold Nightime is still the same as the Flu and sore Throat in syrup form. Also, if it means anything to you or other people that stumble across this - the symptoms on these 2 syrup bottles ARE now listed in the exact same order. So for a consumer comparing bottle to bottle, it’s going to be easier to realize they are the same.

    At the end of the day, I don’t have a problem with this marketing ploy. The bottles do not claim to do something they don’t, or claim they are for symptoms they aren’t. I actually agree with the marketing team on this one. Lost of people look for keywords such as “flu” or “nighttime”. There are so many meds on the shelves, it’s hard to sort through it all. If I am walking down the aisle, thinking “I need something for my flu like symptoms” I will be drawn to the flu and sore throat bottle. Same if I am walking down the aisle thinking “I need some good nighttime cold med.”

    And of course, for anyone who takes the time to actually check the ingredients, it’s all right there. Yes the company is using certain keywords to attract you - that’s the heart of marketing - but they are not deceptive about what is in the bottle. The info is right there for you.

  17. comment number 17 by: Anonymous

    Shelly, From WebMD “diphenhydramine HCl Oral Uses

    Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine used to relieve symptoms of allergy, hay fever and the common cold. These symptoms include rash, itching, watery eyes, itchy eyes/nose/throat, cough, runny nose and sneezing. It is also used to prevent and treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness caused by motion sickness. Diphenhydramine can also be used to help you relax and fall asleep.

    This medication works by blocking a certain natural substance (histamine) that your body makes during an allergic reaction. Its drying effects on such symptoms as watery eyes and runny nose are caused by blocking another natural substance made by your body (acetylcholine).”

    So, did you have an allergy? if so why did you buy “Theraflu Sever Cough and Cold nighttime (the syrup version)?” And, if you had an allergy, you could have purchased Diphenhydramine HCL far cheaper than the 7 or 8 bucks you spent.

    I’ll repost: These type of combination products are not recommended by Consumer Reports. You should only take meds that are targeted to specific symptoms. There are no magic elixirs.
    Both of these products have an antihistamine which is for allergies and won’t help a cold or flu so why take it?

    Furthermore, the decongestant Phenylephrine hydrochloride is a less effective decongestant than pseudoephedrine the old Pseudo fed That you can still get by going to the pharmacy counter and asking for the generic version which is very inexpensive.

    Lastly, acetaminophen is an inexpensive pain reliever you can buy separately. Be aware that acetaminophen can be very hard on your liver. Aspirin or ibuprofen might be a better choice.

    Save yourself a lot of money and take a generic pseudoephedrine and aspirin. Probably less than 20 cents a dose and more effective. Great hangover cure also.

  18. comment number 18 by: Jordan

    I agree with comment #6. This stuff is exactly what you don’t need when fighting a cold or flu. Facts are the harder you are on your body in regards to your consumption habits the harder it is for your immune system to fight attacks. So why give yourself a concoction of drugs and toxic ingredients when you’re fighting a bug? Pay more attention to what you’re consuming as in actually researching the ingredients you put into the one and, I believe, last body you will have in this universe. It would appear that the corporate greed behind world media has taught the masses to consume wildly and carelessly while at the same time ignoring the consequences until their body or mind falls apart. I used to be in the thick of it myself. I grew up eating horribly processed foods and lots of sugar and since I’ve been cooking for myself and learning what to avoid while at the market and WHY, I have reduced the occurrence of colds and flues BIG TIME. When I was younger I would get multiple colds a year lasting for at least a week each time. Now when I fight my yearly bug it’s no more than 2 days and it’s not nearly as bad, day by day, as it used to be that’s for sure.

  19. comment number 19 by: Treacy

    I was doing research for a class and stumbled upon your blog. I know this to be true of many over the counter products. If you go to their website they are careful to only list the powders that have different ingredients on the back. Validating the change in box and symptoms cured. They wont show the ones that are identical in ingredients. Very deceptive. Thanks

  20. comment number 20 by: Bill

    Does TheraFlu work?

    YES !!!!

    TheraFlu works for me

    When I have a cold and a bad cough and a sore throat, my medicinal self-prescription is Codein Cough Syrup at night before going to bed, and TheraFlu in the daytime

    Works everytime.

  21. comment number 21 by: AlphaOmega

    There are actually 14 actives in Theraflu. And they do vary from product to product. All ingredients do not have to be listed for OTCs. They are actually reformulating their OTCs to eliminate the pseudophedrine component(s). Helps to be doing method development work for Novartis.

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