Making sense of the cold and flu aisle

So you’re coughing. You have a low grade fever, pounding headache, stuffiness, sore throat. Basically…’re feeling crappy. So you drag yourself to the pharmacy (or better yet, somebody awesome who loves you volunteers) to get something to make you feel better.

My last post mentioned the types of ingredients that may be helpful in shortening the duration of cold/ flu symptoms. In this post, I help make sense of the products that are available over-the-counter (OTC) to help treat the symptoms. Again, it’s worth mentioning that these medications just help you to feel better while your body fights off the enemy virus that has invaded your system, but are not technically cures. 

Firstly, keep in mind that the best treatments always include REST and HYDRATION. It takes a lot of energy for your body’s immune system to mount its defenses so take it easy, seriously. And drink lots of fluids to replace what you will lose while sweating and eating less (cuz who feels like eating when they’re sick).

Next, the trick is to get products that treat the symptoms you have. Some cold/flu treatments target congestion, some target pain, cough etc. If you have all of the above, then a combination treatment (that has multiple ingredients) may be right for you. But if all you have is a cough, then you don’t need to take medication with a pain reliever. Check the label for the ingredient list. Here are the common ingredients for each symptom, and read all the way to the bottom to see which meds may NOT be safe for you!

  • Fever/ pain (body aches, sore throat, headache):
    • acetaminophen
    • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): lots of different kinds, like Ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Aleve)
  • Cough:
    • dextromethorphan
    • guaifenesin (for a productive cough, helps loosen and bring up phlegm)
    • honey
  • Congestion/ runny nose
    • guaifenesin
    • pseudoephedrine
    • phenylephrine
    • diphenhydramine
    • oxymetazoline (usually in nasal spray form)
    • **also, these may help treat cough if  the cause of your cough is post-nasal drip **

Now, as I always mention, always check with your health care provider before using any new meds. It may sound silly because they are available OTC, but even OTC meds may not be safe in certain circumstances (depending on what medical conditions you have, what medications you’re already taking that may interact etc).  For example, NSAIDS are potentially dangerous in people with kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, who are taking blood thinners or have a history of bleeding. Similarly, many of the decongestants listed can potentially affect the heart in high-risk patients. It never hurts to ask!

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