BACKGROUND: Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are the most common infections in developed countries and are the major reasons for the consumption of medicines including antibiotics. In Korea, antibiotics and glucocorticoids were dispensed by pharmacies without prescriptions before July 2000, when the dispensation of antibiotics without doctor's prescriptions was prohibited. The objective of this study is to investigate the rate of antibiotic dispensation by pharmacies for the treatment of common cold and to identify the dispensing pattern for URI management in 2005, i.e., 5 years after the establishment of the prohibition policy. MATERIALS AND METHODS: In August 2005, medical students visited 90 drugstores in three cities (Seoul, Chonan, and Chunchun) and received medications for the treatment of illnesses that simulate the common cold, i.e., rhinorrhea and nasal stuffiness that had lasted for one day and were not accompanied by fever. The components of the dispensed medicines were identified by pharmacists at a university hospital. RESULTS: All the components of the dispensed medicines were identifiable in 85 cases (94.4%), and the mean number of medicines was 1.36 (S.D.+/-0.724); no difference was observed among the three cities. The antibiotics ampicillin and chloramphenicol were identified in two pharmacies in Seoul and Chunchun, respectively. Glucocorticoids were not dispensed in any case, and a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug was dispensed in only one case. Compound medicines are increasingly used as cold remedies; the components of the most frequently dispensed medicine were acetaminophen, chlorpheniramine, and pseudoephedrine. Herbal medicines were also frequently included in cold remedies (38.9%); licorice (30%) and ginger (26%) were the two most frequently used medicinal herbs. CONCLUSION: There was a marked decrease in the dispensation of antimicrobials, glucocorticoids, and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs without doctor's prescriptions. Chloramphenicol continued to be dispensed as a URI medication. Increased use of compound and herbal medicines as cold remedies suggests a need for the evaluation of the additional benefits of herbal medicines, their adverse effects, and the drug interactions between herbal and conventional medicines.