Which Over-the-Counter Medications are Best for Common Cold and Flu Symptoms?

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Flu Season Is Here

Get vaccinated before peak flu season hits - 4 easy ways to get your flu shot with Ochsner.

We’ve all been there before when we wake up one morning with a sore throat, runny nose and sometimes, even a fever.

It would be nice to know that there was something we could take right away to start fighting off that nasty cold or flu, however the common cold and flu are both caused by viruses; therefore, antibiotics, which only treat illnesses caused by bacteria, will not treat either one of these viral infections.

Your best way to prevent the flu is by receiving the annual flu vaccine. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for the common cold.

Viruses and germs can live on many different surfaces for up to 24 hours, such as doorknobs, phones, faucets, etc. People typically catch the common cold or flu by first touching a contaminated surface and then by touching either their eyes or nose; therefore, the best ways to prevent spreading either virus are by sanitizing common surfaces and washing hands frequently!

Below are tips for treating symptoms of cold and flu with over-the-counter medications:

  • For fever, headaches, minor aches and pain, including sore throats, try taking one of the following medications: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. If you consume 3 or more alcoholic drinks per day, ask your doctor whether you should take any of these medications for pain or fever. Also, ask your doctor before taking ibuprofen or naproxen if you have stomach problems (such as heartburn, upset stomach or stomach pain), bleeding problems, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, renal or hepatic failure or asthma. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen and ibuprofen, carry the risk of stomach bleeding. Factors that increase this risk are: age over 75, history of ulcers, additional use of steroids or anticoagulants, high dose of NSAIDs or multiple NSAIDs and serious underlying health conditions.
  • Antihistamines are helpful when treating symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and itchy watery eyes. Older antihistamines, such as Benadryl, are more likely to cause sedation, decreased alertness and performance impairment, which is why Benadryl is not recommended for patients who have to work, drive or operate heavy machinery. Benadryl is not recommended for children younger than 6 years old without consulting a physician, and can actually cause excitation in children. For patients 65 and older, Benadryl can increase the risk of falling by causing excessive sedation, decrease in coordination and confusion. Newer antihistamines, such as Zyrtec, Allegra and Claritin, have anti-inflammatory properties that appear to be helpful in relieving nasal congestion
  • Dextromethorphan works well to suppress coughing; however, because this medication can cause drowsiness and possibly dizziness, it is recommended to take at nighttime. Do not take dextromethorphan if you are now taking a prescription monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) or for 2 weeks after stopping the MAOI drug.
  • For chest congestion or a productive cough, guaifenesin is the best option. Guaifenesin acts as an expectorant and is the active ingredient in Mucinex. It is recommended to drink lots of fluids while taking guaifenesin, which helps to thin respiratory secretions.
  • For nasal congestion, try either pseudoephedrine or phenylephedrine. Pseudoephedrine can only be purchased at the pharmacy counter with a valid, state issued driver’s license or identification card. Do not take either phenylephedrine or pseudoephedrine if you are now taking a prescription monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) or for 2 weeks after stopping the MAOI drug. Ask your physician first if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, trouble urinating due to an enlarged prostate or thyroid disorders. Phenylephedrine and pseudoephedrine can cause an increase in heart rate, increase in blood pressure, nervousness, anxiety and insomnia. It is recommended to take either pseudoephedrine or phenylephedrine in the morning so your nighttime sleep will not be affected.

If you have any questions regarding the common cold or flu, or the different products targeted to treat your cold or flu symptoms, ask your pharmacist or other healthcare professional.

Always take medications, including OTC products, as directed!

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