Cold and Flu Treatments

Feeling sick? If you have symptoms of the cold or flu—like 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.

View the common symptoms of a cold or the flu.

Medications for Cold and Flu Symptoms

Since a cold does not usually require a visit to the doctor, you can do a lot to take care of yourself and your family at home, and opting for medicines available at your local pharmacy is one option. However, the list of over-the-counter cold and flu medications seems endless. Just walking down the cold and flu aisle can be overwhelming. How do you know what you need or which brand is the best?

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 also 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. Always read the labels of the medicines you are taking to check for similar ingredients. If you aren't sure, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Feel Better Without Medicine

There are actually quite a few cold and flu remedies that don't involve taking any medicine. And unlike many "miracle cures" you may see talked about around the Internet or shared by word of mouth, these actually work.

  • 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.

Flu Treatment: Prescription Antiviral Medicine

The flu, or influenza, is a much more serious virus than the common cold. Although most people recover from the flu with no problems, over 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with the illness (as many as 36,000 die from it).

Early detection is critical when you have the flu. If you think you might have it, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. 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.

The most common of these antiviral medicines is Tamiflu. It 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. A third type of antiviral medication used to treat the flu is called Rapivab. This IV medicine was approved in 2014 and is used in hospital settings to treat patients with serious influenza infections.

What Not To Do

There are a lot of interesting suggestions for how to get rid of your cold and flu symptoms floating around on the Internet. Everything from putting an onion in your room to using essential oils is touted as a cure with varying degrees of acceptance. We have a list of cold and flu remedies that have no basis in science that can help you sort fact from fiction.

Another extremely important thing to remember: Colds and the flu are caused by viruses. Antibiotics don't kill viruses and won't work to make you feel better any faster. Please don't take antibiotics if you have a cold, the flu, or other viral infection. 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.

Although it is frustrating to have to wait out your symptoms, time is really the best remedy for most common viruses.

What About Supplements and Herbal Remedies?

Many people swear by options such as vitamin C, echinacea, or elderberry to stop the common cold and other viruses. The problem is the research just doesn't support the use of these types of remedies. For most people, taking herbal supplements or extra vitamins won't hurt, but you still need to be careful. Just because they are "natural" doesn't mean they don't have side effects. If you have any type of chronic medical condition (such as kidney, liver, or heart problems), talk to your healthcare provider before you take any herbal supplements or extra vitamins.

Essential oils 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.

Prevention Is Key

They say prevention is the best medicine. In the case of the flu, that holds true. While it isn't life-threatening for most people, it can be for some—and we do have options for preventing it.

Getting a flu shot every year will greatly reduce your risk of getting the flu. Although it is a good idea for most people to have the flu shot, certain people should always get the vaccination every year. Flu vaccines are especially important for children, as they are at high risk for flu complications.

Washing your hands is another major factor in preventing the spread of germs. Wash your hands correctly (chances are you aren't) and frequently. It's especially important after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, before eating, and before and after preparing food. If you are sick, wash your hands after you cough or sneeze so you don't spread germs onto everything you touch.

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Article Sources
  • CDC. Take everyday precautions to protect others while sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 9, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  • Common cold - how to treat at home: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  • Havers F, Thaker S, Clippard JR, et al. Use of Influenza Antiviral Agents by Ambulatory Care Clinicians During the 2012–2013 Influenza Season. Clin Infect Dis. July 2014:ciu422. doi:10.1093/cid/ciu422.
  • Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) | Seasonal Influenza (Flu) | CDC. Accessed June 17, 2016.