The 8 Best OTC Flu Meds of 2021

Ease symptoms with these top-rated picks

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

First Look

Best Overall: NyQuil and DayQuil SEVERE Caplets with Vicks VapoCool at Amazon

"Both caplets contain similar ingredients, like a decongestant to unclog your nose and an expectorant to loosen up the mucus in your chest and relieve coughs."

Best for Sinus Pain: Vicks Sinex Severe Sinus Pressure & Pain Non-Drowsy LiquiCaps at Amazon

"The all-in-one sinus relief is said to work in as little as 30 minutes, so there’s no need to sit around waiting for it to kick in."

Best Drink Mix: Theraflu Multi-Symptom Severe Cold Tea Infusions at Amazon

"The powder pairs nicely with hot water to serve a warm, comforting drink."

Best for Night: GoodSense NightTime Cold and Flu Relief at Amazon

"This cherry-flavored liquid attacks both by combining the work of a pain reliever, fever reducer, cough suppressant, and antihistamine."

Best for Kids: Children’s Tylenol at Amazon

"If your child’s symptoms include pain and fever, acetaminophen like Tylenol is a tried-and-true method."

Best Tasting: Theraflu PowerPods Daytime Severe Cold at Amazon

"The pods have the active ingredient of acetaminophen to ease pain and fever, dextromethorphan to suppress your cough, and phenylephrine for nasal decongestion."

Best for Cough: Robitussin Cough and Chest Congestion DM Liquid-Filled Capsules at Amazon

"Dextromethorphan is always trusted when it comes to gaining control over a cough."

Best for Day: Mucinex Fast-Max Max Strength, Cold, Flu, & Sore Throat Liquid Gels at Amazon

"Mucinex Fast-Max Max Strength can take away your sore throat, stuffy nose, and fever in a single dose ."

Heading to the drug store to pick up cold and flu medicine seems like a simple enough task, but your symptoms could just get worse before you figure out which of the hundreds of options in the medicine aisle is right for you. 

Before starting your quest for the best medicine, you must first understand the difference between the flu, the common cold, and allergies. Errol McKenzie, MD, founder of Family Medicine Associates of Fayetteville, says a lot of patients tend to misinterpret symptoms, so it’s important to make sure you get tested for the flu within the first 24 to 48 hours. If you’re positive, then your doctor can prescribe you antivirals to shorten the course of your flu or improve some of your symptoms. 

If you test negative and your flu-like symptoms continue, consult with your doctor on the best next steps. If your symptoms align with the flu and involve joint aches, respiratory issues, and a fever, then you can make your way to your local drugstore. Just remember to keep in mind your personal medical history as you browse the medicine aisle. “If you have hypertension, asthma, cardiovascular disease, allergies, or eczema, you have to make sure that the ingredients in these over the counter medications don't destabilize your existing medical condition,” explains Dr. McKenzie. 

Even if you’re tempted to go with a familiar brand, carefully read through the box for warnings and ingredients. “Make sure you're not allergic to anything in it and that there are no sedative effects because if there are, driving can be prohibitive under those circumstances,” warns Dr. McKenzie. 

Here are some of the most trusted over-the-counter flu medicines to have on hand.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: NyQuil and DayQuil SEVERE Caplets with Vicks VapoCool

Flu symptoms can be relentless, from the moment you wake to the moment you hit the bed. That’s why the DayQuil and NyQuil SEVERE combo pack is a trusted friend of those sick with flu-like symptoms; it doubles down on what’s hurting the most, whether that’s your head due to a fever or your throat due to a cough. 

You can begin your morning with the DayQuil caplets without fear of drowsiness setting in during a busy workday. Then you can turn to NyQuil when you’re ready for bed and allow the antihistamine components of the caplet to ease you into a nice stupor. Aside from the antihistamine, both types of caplets contain similar ingredients, like a decongestant to unclog your nose and an expectorant to loosen up the mucus in your chest and relieve coughs.

DayQuil uses active ingredients acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, guaifenesin, and phenylephrine while NyQuil uses acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, doxylamine succinate, and phenylephrine.

Best for Sinus Pain: Vicks Sinex Severe Sinus Pressure & Pain Non-Drowsy LiquiCaps

Vicks’ goal is to relieve pain from sinus congestion so people can “breathe freely fast.” The all-in-one sinus relief is said to work in as little as 30 minutes, so there’s no need to sit around waiting for it to kick in. The liquicaps utilize active ingredients such as acetaminophen to reduce fever and the nasal decongestant phenylephrine to relieve even the worst stuffiness. 

Best Drink Mix: Theraflu Multi-Symptom Severe Cold Tea Infusions

Even if taking pills or sipping on liquid medicine isn’t your thing, you might still have some apprehension around turning to dissolvable medicine. When it comes to Theraflu Multi-Symptom Severe Cold Relief Tea Infusion powder packets, taste should not be an issue. The tea-infused powder comes in a delicious green tea & honey lemon flavor for the multi-symptom severe cold packets. Theraflu also has a nighttime version that comes in a honey lemon flavor, which is also infused with chamomile

The powder pairs nicely with hot water to serve a warm, comforting drink that mitigates flu-like symptoms such as a sore throat, congestion, fever, and body aches. Theraflu uses active ingredients acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, and phenylephrine.

Best for Night: GoodSense NightTime Cold and Flu Relief

GoodSense is one of those reliable medicines you can always turn to in a time of need. Whether you suspect you have a cold or the flu, this cherry-flavored liquid attacks both by combining the work of a pain reliever, fever reducer, cough suppressant, and antihistamine. With all these symptoms under control, sleep is close within reach. GoodSense contains three active ingredients: acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, and doxylamine succinate. 

Best for Kids: Children’s Tylenol

Before rushing to your local drugstore to pick up medicine for your child suffering from cold and flu symptoms, first, consult your pediatrician to confirm the best options. Drugstores have over 300 cold and flu products, and many are not suitable for children—especially for those under the age of six—so the key is to pay extra close attention to the label for dosage directions based on the age group. 

If your child’s symptoms include pain and fever, acetaminophen like Tylenol is a tried-and-true method. While medicine with a decongestant or cough suppressant can help reduce any leakage, it’s best to proceed with caution because those are known to act as cardiac stimulants.

Children’s Tylenol comes in a kid-friendly cherry flavor that coasts down your child’s throat and is free of ibuprofen, aspirin, and alcohol. 

Best Tasting: Theraflu PowerPods Daytime Severe Cold

theraflu daytime severe cold
courtesy of Amazon.

Who needs medicine in a capsule when you can get it in a pod? TheraFlu manufactures one of the best non-drowsy medicines on the market, and now they've put that combination of ingredients in pod form. With a quick press of a button on your standard coffee pod machine, Theraflu can be released into your morning cup of coffee or tea for easy cold and flu symptom relief. The pods have the active ingredient of acetaminophen to ease pain and fever, Dextromethorphan to suppress your cough, and phenylephrine for nasal decongestion. Once you get this medicine in your system, you’ll actually be able to breathe in that lovely morning brew.

Best for Cough: Robitussin Cough and Chest Congestion DM Liquid-Filled Capsules

Dextromethorphan is always trusted when it comes to gaining control over a cough, which is why so many people rely on Robitussin. Along with guaifenesin, an expectorant that helps loosen mucus, this medicine releases congestion from your chest and makes it easier for you to move through the day without having to continuously pause to cough. 

Best for Day: Mucinex Fast-Max Max Strength, Cold, Flu, & Sore Throat Liquid Gels

Feeling under the weather is always an unpleasant feeling, but struggling with cold and flu symptoms in the middle of the day when you’re expected to work is the worst. Luckily, Mucinex Fast-Max Max Strength can take away your sore throat, stuffy nose, and fever in a single dose without taking away your energy. Its active ingredients include guaifenesin, dextromethorphan, and phenylephrine.

Final Verdict

The number one rule of taking OTC flu medication is to consult with a doctor or pharmacist about what you plan on taking, so there’s no risk of potentially harmful drug interactions. Make sure to look out for the amount of acetaminophen you’re taking, and which OTC flu medications may have hidden acetaminophen in the ingredients list without realizing it. Always use as directed and make sure to understand how your body reacts to medications labeled “drowsy” before you plan on driving a car or doing any other activity you need to be alert for.

While there are plenty of flu medicines on the market that can help relieve your symptoms quickly, NyQuil and DayQuil SEVERE Caplets are one of the best options for pain relief. With both a nighttime and daytime formula, you can feel like yourself throughout the work day while still getting a good night's sleep as you recover. If your little one is under the weather, turn to Children’s Tylenol for a safe dose of flu symptom relief that's suitable for children.

What to Look for in an OTC Flu Medicine

Form: There are a few different forms of OTC medications, including gel capsules, pills, syrups, and powders that you mix into a liquid for cough or pain relief.

But according to Jake Deutch, MD, founder and Clinical Director of Cure Urgent Care, whichever you take is up to personal preference. “Some people feel it’s easier to mix with warm water, other people like to swallow gel tabs,” he says. “The key is keeping the consistency in what you’re taking, making sure the fever is reduced.”

Abisola Olulade, MD, a San Diego-based family physician agrees: “There’s no evidence that one is significantly more effective than the other, but some may be better depending on the situation,” she says. “Soft gels are similar to capsules and consist of a gelatin based shell surrounding a liquid. They tend to be less irritating to the stomach lining.” 

Ingredients to Target Specific Symptoms: If you're looking for an OTC flu medication, note that different options may target different symptoms. The following are a few of the most common flu symptoms, as well as the best OTC medication type for each one.

  • Pain Relief: If you’re experiencing pain or body aches due to the flu, there are two main categories of pain relieving medications you can take. The first category is NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Examples of these are ibuprofen (Motrin) naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin. “These prevent the body from producing prostaglandins which are hormone-like chemicals that cause pain inflammation and fever,” says Dr. Olulade. The other class is acetaminophen (Tylenol). “We aren’t fully sure how Tylenol works but it does help to reduce fever and inflammation. It has been theorized that it acts by reducing the formation of prostaglandins in the brain, but the fact that we don't fully understand how it works may be surprising to a lot of people,” she adds. 
  • Stuffy Nose: If you’re experiencing a runny or stuffy nose, choosing an over the counter decongestant can help. According to Dr. Olulade, “When you get sick, blood vessels that line the nose become swollen (due to inflammation), making it difficult to breathe. Decongestants work by shrinking these blood vessels which allows you to breathe better.” Decongestants come in pill form and nasal sprays. Pills you can choose are pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE). “Pseudoephedrine, which is kept behind the pharmacy counter, is the more effective/potent of the two,” says Dr. Olulade.
  • Runny Nose: You may want to consider trying an antihistamine if your nose won’t stop running, but you can still breathe pretty easily through your nasal passages. According to Dr. Olulade, “histamine is released when the body detects something foreign like an infection or allergen.” These medications block this chemical to reduce inflammation.
  • Cough: First off, is your cough productive or unproductive? Productive means you’re coughing something up when you cough, whereas unproductive means your cough is dry. “A productive cough can be managed with guaifenesin, which works by loosening the congestion in your chest which makes it easier to cough. Examples of this are Robitussin and Mucinex,” says Dr. Olulade. If you have a dry cough (which is most common with the flu), “dextromethorphan, which works as a cough suppressant by affecting the signals in the brain that trigger the cough reflex, may work best,” says Dr. Olulade. However, if you are taking OTC medication for cough and you don’t notice any difference in your symptoms, you’re not alone. “It’s interesting to note that many studies have shown that cough medications OTC may not suppress cough more than placebo (taking nothing at all), and some have shown that honey may work just as well,” notes Dr. Olulade. Some holistic OTC options for cough use honey as a main ingredient to help quell chronic coughing due to the flu.

Drowsy vs. Non Drowsy: Some people may feel the effects of medications that cause drowsiness more than others. “If anyone has a sensitivity to drowsy medications then they should be avoided; always consult with your doctor,” says Dr. Deutch. 

Dr. Olulade agrees. “Some people feel sedated when they take other types of cold medicines such as decongestants, although they are not inherently sedating and often cause sleeplessness,” she says. “It’s always better to give yourself time to see how you react before driving or operating heavy machinery.”

Potential Drug Interactions: Whenever you take any medication—even over-the-counter ones—it’s best to briefly consult with the pharmacist to make sure you can mix all the medications you plan on taking. If you’re taking a prescription medication and decide to purchase over-the-counter meds for the flu, you should definitely make sure to consult with a pharmacist or your doctor.

“Combining cold medication is very tricky as you may end up taking too much of the same ingredient,” says Dr. Abi. “Some cold medications may also interact with many different prescription medications and in some cases this may be life-threatening, such as the interaction between pseudoephedrine and a class of medication called MAOIs (monoamine anti-oxidase inhibitors). This can cause severely elevated blood pressure,” she says. 

Just because a medication is sold over the counter doesn’t mean you can decide how you should take it. You should always read the labels. “Tylenol can cause a potential drug interaction if you don’t follow proper instructions,” says Dr. Deutch. “I’ve seen people who were taking cold and flu meds with Tylenol and pain medication, so they had a toxic level of Tylenol in [their system.] Other antihistamines can cause over sedation, which should be avoided,” he adds.

Dr. Olulade warns of being aware of any prescription sleep aid you may be taking when you also plan on taking flu meds. “Any medication used for insomnia or that is also sedating could potentially interact with an antihistamine, such as Benadryl, due to additive effects. Some anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax can be sedating as well and could interact with sedating antihistamines for this same reason.” 

“Some people feel sedated when they take other types of cold medicines such as decongestants, although they are not inherently sedating and often cause sleeplessness. It’s always better to give yourself time to see how you react before driving or operating heavy machinery.”Abisola Olulade, MD, San Diego-based family physician

Why Trust Verywell Health

Having been raised by two medical professionals, Amari Pollard understands the importance of health literacy. As a seasoned health writer, she is committed to producing well-researched and well-sourced product reviews to help people make informed medical decisions.

Additional reporting for this story by Brittany Leitner

As a health writer with over eight years of experience, Brittany Leitner understands how important access to information is when it comes to making educated health decisions. She has interviewed dozens of medical experts, tested out hundreds of products, and aims to provide quality recommendations that won't break the bank.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Farzam K, Faizy RM, Saadabadi A. Stimulants. In: StatPearls. Updated April 11, 2020.