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 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 bloodstream.

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 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.