How Cold and Flu Are Treated

Doctor examining young girl
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If you have symptoms of the cold or flu—such as a runny nose, congestion, cough, headache, fever, or a sore throat—you probably want to make them go away. While there is no "cure" for the common cold or the flu, these illnesses are typically self-limiting and go away on their own with time. However, there are things you can do to get relief in the meantime. Which is right for you depends on your symptoms and your health.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

There are actually quite a few cold and flu remedies that don't involve taking any medicine.

  • Rinse Your Sinuses: Rinsing your sinuses with a neti pot or other nasal irrigation device can be tremendously helpful in relieving discomfort from a congested and stuffy nose. Be sure to use a sterile saline solution or make your own using distilled or previously boiled and cooled water. Never use straight tap water to rinse your sinuses. It may contain bacteria that could be harmful.
  • Try a Saline Spray: Using a saline spray (or drops, for babies and young children) is an alternative way to rinse the sinuses and bring relief from congestion. Saline helps thin mucus and allows more of it to exit the body when you blow your nose or suction your child's nose with a bulb syringe.
  • Run a Humidifier: Extra moisture in the air when you are congested, coughing, and have a sore throat can make you more comfortable and allow mucus to drain more easily.
  • Drink Extra Water: Keeping hydrated is always important, but it's even more important when you are sick. Your body needs extra fluids to flush out the virus that is making you sick, and drinking extra water will keep you more comfortable than you would be otherwise.
  • Sleep: If you are sick, you are going to be more tired than usual. The more you can rest, the better you will feel. Our bodies do a lot of work to heal when we are able to rest. Trying to sleep when you are sick can be difficult, but allowing your body downtime instead of pushing yourself is essential.
  • Gatorade or Pedialyte: While nausea and vomiting are rarely seen in adults with cold or flu, they sometimes occur in children. In this case, not only do you want to keep your child hydrated, but they also need electrolyte (salt) replacement. The best way to do this is with Pedialyte or small sips of Gatorade (mixed half and half with water).
  • Honey: A spoonful of honey before bedtime can help with a cough. But this remedy should only be used for adults and children older than 12 months. Infants have a risk of botulism from honey.
  • Avoid Secondhand Smoke: When you have respiratory symptoms, smoke will make them worse.
  • Don't Share Your Germs: Stay home, if possible, when you are actively coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Cover your cough and wash your hands frequently. As much as possible, keep some distance between yourself and household members who are in high-risk groups such as infants under 6 months, people over age 65, and those with chronic health conditions.
  • Time: Although it is frustrating to have to wait out your symptoms, time is really the best remedy for most common viruses. One saying is, "If you use vitamin C, decongestants, and cough remedies, your cold will last a week. If you do nothing, it will last seven days."

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

You can treat your symptoms with a variety of over-the-counter medications. These typically won't shorten the length of your illness, but they may help you feel better while you wait for it to run its course. These types of OTC medications may help:

  • Antihistamines help relieve itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, and a scratchy throat.
  • Decongestants alleviate sinus headaches and stuffy noses.
  • Expectorants such as guaifenesin help loosen mucus.
  • Cough suppressants should only be taken before sleep if your cough won't let you get good rest. Do not take cough syrup during the day because coughing prevents congestion from settling and becoming infected.
  • Pain relievers/fever reducers may be taken for the aches, pains, and fever that come with the flu. Thee include Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen). Do not use aspirin. This is especially important for children and teens, as it can result in Reye's syndrome, but adults should avoid it as well and use the alternatives.
  • Combination products have two or more types of medication in one pill or syrup.
  • Throat lozenges or sprays can ease a sore throat.

OTC Cold and Flu Medications for Children

The rules about giving cold medicine to kids have changed drastically in recent years. Researchers have found they often do not relieve symptoms in children and they can have serious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics says they do not recommend OTC cough or cold medications for children under age 6, and the FDA issued a public health advisory about children's cold medicines as well. Always check with your child’s healthcare provider before giving him any cold medicine.

Your best bet is to figure out what symptoms you have and find a medication, or a few medications, that treat those symptoms. Be careful not to take a medication that treats symptoms you don't have. Taking an "all-in-one" medicine may be appealing, but taking medicine for symptoms that you don't have can be risky.

It's extremely important not to take more than one medicine with the same or similar ingredients, as doing so can cause you to experience overdosing concerns. For example, if you take a multi-symptom cold and flu medicine, it probably contains acetaminophen (the generic name for Tylenol), so taking a separate dose of acetaminophen to lower a fever or reduce pain is not advised.

Besides this problem, many OTC cold and flu medications warn of side effects including drowsiness, irritability, and interactions with other medications. Always read the labels of the medicines you are taking to check for similar ingredients, side effects, and drug interactions. If you aren't sure, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Prescriptions

Most cases of cold and flu do not require prescription medications. However, if you have another health condition or are in a high-risk group, your doctor may give you a prescription or want to adjust your existing medications.

If you have asthma, you may need to use your rescue inhaler if you feel an asthma attack coming on, as can be triggered by cold or flu.

For severe cough, your doctor may prescribe a cough medicine containing codeine or hydrocodone. These should never be taken by children or teens younger than 18 years.

Antibiotics are not used to treat cold or flu. Your doctor may prescribe them if you are developing a bacterial infection (such as pneumonia). Some patients pressure their doctors for antibiotics, but antibiotics won't make them feel better any faster. The rampant overuse of antibiotics has created a global crisis resulting in widespread antibiotic resistance. It will continue to get worse the more antibiotics are used inappropriately.

Antiviral medications may be prescribed for influenza. Taking antiviral medications within the first 48 hours of the start of symptoms can shorten the duration of your illness and help make symptoms less severe. It can also make you less likely to suffer serious complications. These medicines are most important for people that are at high risk for complications from the flu, such as young children, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions. They include:

  • Tamiflu is available as a pill or liquid. It can be used for nearly any age group and has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms and lessen their severity.
  • Relenza is another type of antiviral flu treatment, but it is orally inhaled instead of swallowed.
  • Rapivab is an intravenous medicine used in hospital settings to treat patients with serious influenza infections.

While it is preventative rather a treatment, getting a flu shot every year will greatly reduce your risk of getting the flu. The yearly flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over age 6 months, but they are especially important for children, those over age 65, and people with chronic health conditions as they are at high risk for flu complications.

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Many people seek herbal or natural remedies for cold or flu. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that no complementary health approach will help with influenza. If you have the flu, you probably will get no benefits from American ginseng, Chinese herbal medicine, echinacea, elderberry, green tea, Oscillococcinum, vitamin C, or vitamin D.

There are some CAM remedies that may be helpful for colds:

  • Zinc: For colds, NCCIH reports that zinc products taken orally as lozenges, tablets, or syrup have been shown to shorten colds in adults. However, they have side effects such as nausea or bad taste and long-term use can reduce your immunity and interact with a variety of medications. Avoid nasal gels or swabs containing zinc as they can cause long-term or permanent loss of your sense of smell, according to the FDA.
  • Vitamin C: Although many people swear by vitamin C for preventing colds or shortening them, large studies show no such benefits. However, if you have been under extreme physical stress (such as running a marathon), taking vitamin C may indeed help prevent colds, although it is still not useful as a treatment if you get a cold. High doses of vitamin C can interfere with cancer treatment or cholesterol-lowering medications.
  • Probiotics: There is some evidence (although of low quality) that taking probiotics can reduce your number of colds and the length of your illness. Probiotics are generally safe unless you have a serious underlying medical problem.
  • Stress Reduction: A preliminary study by NCCIH showed some good effects in reducing colds and their severity by using meditation or physical exercise.

As for other approaches, NCCIH says there is conflicting or mostly negative evidence for any benefits of echinacea, garlic, and American ginseng for colds.

Some people try using essential oils for colds. They typically aren't harmful if they are used as aromatherapy, but can cause rashes on the skin if not used properly. Taking them orally is dangerous; they can cause seizures when ingested.

A Word From Verywell

Prevention is the best medicine. Getting the yearly flu vaccine will reduce your risk and you may have milder symptoms if you do get the flu. Washing your hands will prevent the spread of germs. Keeping yourself in good health (with physical exercise and a nutritious diet) and getting treatment for any ongoing health conditions might also reduce your risk of cold, flu, and their complications.

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Article Sources

  1. How to treat the common cold at home. MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine


  2. For Clinicians: Antiviral Medication. Influenza. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  3. What the Science Says About Complementary Health Approaches for the Flu. Flu and Colds: In Depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health



  4. What the Science Says About Complementary Health Approaches for Colds. Flu and Colds: In Depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health



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