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Cold & Flu Medication Guide

How to get safe (and effective) relief for your cold and flu symptoms

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately eight to ten percent of the United States population will become sick with an influenza (flu) virus each year. Additionally, the average American will catch between two to three colds per year. A cold and the flu are both caused by viral infections and produce a variety of unpleasant symptoms. Colds often are accompanied by nasal congestion and/or a runny nose, sneezing, coughing and a sore throat. Flu viruses can cause similar symptoms as well as fatigue, fever, head and body aches, and for some, diarrhea and vomiting. While there is no cure for either illness, several over-the-counter medications and home remedies may offer symptom relief.

There are more over-the-counter (OTC) options than ever before and it can be difficult to know which is best for you. Certain health conditions including diabetes or high blood pressure, and other factors such as pregnancy, may also impact your decision. Our board-certified Express and Immediate Care physicians share tips on how to select the best OTC medication(s) to manage your symptoms, and which to avoid, if necessary.


When cold and flu symptoms strike, it can be tempting to ask your primary care physician to prescribe an antibiotic. Not only will antibiotics not alleviate your symptoms – antibiotics are effective in killing bacteria, not the viruses responsible for cold and flu bugs – when overused, your body begins to build up tolerance to them. This causes antibiotics to be less-effective when you actually need them.

Cough suppressants

A cough is a common, often frustrating cold symptom, especially if it is preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. If you develop a cough that lasts for several days, or are having difficulty sleeping through the night, a cough suppressant can help. For the most relief, select one that contains the active ingredient dextromethorphan (often listed as DM). Keep in mind that while it may be uncomfortable, coughing is an important part of your body’s healing process. Coughing helps to clear mucus and other irritants from your lungs. Suppressants may prevent this clearing from happening, keeping you sick longer, so try to use them sparingly.

Cough syrups and throat drops

Many people rely on cough syrups and/or throat drops to soothe their throat. While they can provide temporary relief, many contain relatively high amounts of sugar. If you are diabetic, be sure to select a sugar-free option to avoid raising your blood sugar level.


Decongestants are often used to relieve a stuffy nose and reduce inflammation within your nasal cavity. There are several types available, although not all decongestants are as effective. For the most relief, select those that contain pseudoephedrine and are available behind the pharmacy counter. When used appropriately, pseudoephedrine is considered safe and effective, but you will be required to show an ID to purchase it.

If you have diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, check with your primary care physician or specialist before taking a decongestant. They may recommend you use a spray-based decongestant (or nasal saline solution) versus an oral medication. This is because the active ingredients found in most decongestants can elevate your blood pressure as well as your blood sugar. The spray-based decongestants provide symptom relief without allowing the medication to enter your blood stream.

For those with an enlarged prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), decongestants may cause – or temporarily worsen – urinary symptoms. This is because decongestants cause the muscles within your prostate and bladder to tighten, restricting the flow of urine. Depending on the severity of your congestion, you may be better off skipping the decongestant altogether or opting for a saline spray instead.


Echinacea is a popular herbal supplement thought to help boost your immune system and prevent illness and infections. While its exact effectiveness is still unclear, some research has found that it may slightly decrease your odds of catching a cold. It should not be taken long-term (no more than 10 consecutive days), and is most effective if taken when your symptoms first appear.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, especially if you are sensitive to ragweed, you should avoid Echinacea. It is a plant-based supplement that is closely related to the ragweed family. This increases your risk of developing a variety of side effects including stomach upset and skin rashes.


Often during a cold, the mucus in your nasal cavity will begin to drain, causing you to cough and can irritate your throat. Expectorants, such as Mucinex, are often used to thin mucus, making it easier to cough up and keep airways clear. While expectorants are an effective way to relieve symptoms, you can often achieve similar results without medication. Try increasing your water intake, taking a hot shower or using a humidifier instead.

Pain relievers

When you experience head and body aches or a fever, pain relievers including acetaminophen or ibuprofen, are often the first thing you reach for. If you are prescribed blood-thinners, have heart disease or digestive issues including ulcers, you should avoid anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen and naproxen). Anti-inflammatory medications can cause your body to retain fluid and affect your kidney function, which causes your blood pressure to rise. Instead, stick to acetaminophen products, like Tylenol, for pain relief.


Ginseng is a popular natural remedy for cold prevention and treatment. Research has shown it can be effective in supporting a healthy immune system over time, which may also help shorten the duration of a cold. Before taking ginseng (or any other supplement), check with your physician to ensure it will not interact with any medications you may be taking – blood thinners, diabetic medications or antidepressants – or have any other adverse health implications. If you have an autoimmune disorder, have had an organ transplant or if you are pregnant, you should not take ginseng supplements. In general, ginseng should not be taken long-term. If you want to take ginseng for a short period of time (no more than 12 weeks) to help prevent a cold, your intake should not exceed 300 mg/day.

Vitamin C

Many cold and flu products feature high doses of vitamin C, however, there is very little research to support that large amounts of vitamin C is an effective way to combat the cold or flu. In fact, vitamin C is water-soluble, so any amount over your body’s daily requirement (90 mg/day for men and 75 mg/day for women) is removed from your body when you urinate. A better way to keep your immune system strong is by eating foods rich in vitamin C such as bell peppers, broccoli, kiwi or strawberries.


Zinc is a mineral commonly found in OTC cold supplements, like Zicam or Cold-eeze. While research suggests that it can help alleviate cold symptoms and slightly reduce the duration of your cold, there are a few things you should be aware of. First, it is important to understand that zinc helps to alleviate symptoms, not prevent colds. For best results, you should begin taking zinc supplements the day your symptoms start. After you have been exposed to a virus, zinc works to prevent it from multiplying. Ensuring you are taking the proper dose is also important. In order for it to be effective, products should contain between 13-23 milligrams of zinc. Be careful not to take too high of a dose because too much zinc can suppress your immune system. Adults should limit their daily intake to 40 mg/day or less.

If you develop a cold or the flu and are pregnant, many OTC medications may be off-limits. In order to alleviate cold and flu symptoms while pregnant, we recommend:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Increasing your fluid intake
  • Drinking hot tea, sucking on ice chips and/or gargling salt water (for sore throats)
  • Using a humidifier, taking hot showers and keeping your head elevated (to alleviate congestion) 

Some OTC medications are safe for you and your baby, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), vapor rubs and certain cough suppressants and decongestants. You should consult with your OB/GYN before beginning any cold or flu medications.

There is no question that cold and flu viruses can make you feel miserable. For help managing your cold or flu symptoms, or if your symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical care. Our Express and Immediate Care providers are available by appointment, or on a walk-in basis, seven days a week. Find a location near you or call 888-693-6437 locations and wait times.

If you are interested in this health topic, you may also like: 

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Topics and Subtopics: Cold & Flu

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