Pocket-size throat sprays. Thin strips that melt in your mouth. Freezer pops. Like Mary Poppins with her spoonful of sugar, the makers of cold remedies are offering creative ways to help the medicine go down.

The active ingredients aren't new, but the method for taking the medicine is. Growth in the over-the-counter cough and cold category (search) is driven by new products, so tinkering with how people swallow the same old decongestants (search), cough suppressants (search) and antihistamines (search) is one way to appeal to shoppers.

And for cold sufferers, a new twist on an old product offers a psychological lift that might lead to feeling better, said pharmacy expert Bill Soller, who heads the Center for Consumer Self Care at the University of California, San Francisco.

"You've got the same old cold, but you're getting something new," Soller said. "I believe that's a boost to the psycho-social aspect of self-care."

Medicine in dissolving thin strips hit the market last year, and, during the past 12 months, sales totaled $23 million, according to Information Resources Inc.

A plastic case the size of a postage stamp contains 24 strips of Suppress cough medicine, in mint or honey-lemon and costing just a few cents more per dose than a cough drop.

Like the strip breath fresheners that debuted a few years ago, the medicine appeals because it's pocket-sized and convenient, said Rob Davidson, CEO of InnoZen Inc., the Woodland Hills, Calif., company that makes Suppress.

"Most people go to work when they're sick," Davidson said, so they want to stifle a cough inconspicuously.

Other strip medicines include Novartis AG's TheraFlu Thin Strips (search) for adults and Triaminic Thin Strips (search) for children, and Prestige Brands Holdings Inc.'s Chloraseptic's (search) menthol and benzocaine Relief Strips for sore throats.

The TheraFlu strips contain both an antihistamine and a cough suppressant, "more serious medicine than a lozenge," said Mark Schobel, who works on product innovation at Novartis Consumer Health. They're priced higher than most cough drops; $5.39 for 12 individually wrapped strips was the recent price on one online drugstore.

Novartis paid attention to "flavor technology to make sure the drug in this enhanced form still tastes good," Schobel said.

Do the thin strips work?

UCSF's Soller said there's every reason to believe the companies did their homework and the delivery system works to get medicine into the bloodstream. He cautioned that people should always read directions and pay attention to dose size, especially with an unfamiliar format such as the strips.

"Read the label, follow directions," he said. Compare ingredients with other medicines to make sure you don't double-dose by taking two products with the same ingredient, he added.

Beyond convenience, there's the flavor frontier. When cherry, grape and lemon aren't enough, try a compounding pharmacist.

These specialized pharmacists offer medicines in weird and wonderful flavors from coffee to tequila sunrise. With a doctor's OK, they can put sore throat medicine in a lollipop. They can make sugar-free cough syrups.

They can recreate discontinued favorites.

"Some patients have had a cold product they used for years and years" before a manufacturer stopped making it, said Tom Marks, compounding pharmacist at the Martin Avenue Pharmacy in Naperville, Ill. "They'll save it for years and use it sparingly. When it's gone, they'll come in with their whole container" and ask the pharmacist to re-engineer the formula.

As long as the ingredients are still considered safe, Marks can whip up a replacement, maybe adding Dutch apple pie flavoring this time — next time, watermelon.

This year, the illegal methamphetamine trade has sparked one more trend at drugstores: the phase-out of pseudoephedrine from over-the-counter cold medicines.

Some drugstore chains are putting pseudoephedrine-based medicines behind the pharmacist's counter, instead of on shelves, to make it harder for criminals to make it into illegal methamphetamines.

To get back on the shelf, manufacturers are reformulating their remedies using another decongestant, phenylephrine.

"The goal for most manufacturers is to have something available for the 2005-06 cold season," said Walgreen Co. spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce. That starts now, she said: "I'm already stuffed up."