Colds and Flu: What Medications to Take When

Skip "multisymptom relief"and zone in on what you really need

Your throat is sore, your nose is stuffed up and you want relief fast. You can tackle common cold and flu symptoms with a trip to the drugstore, just don't reach for the first over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu remedy you see.

"Multipurpose cold and flu products treat a number of symptoms such as body aches, cough and stuffiness,"says Bethanne Brown, Pharm.D., R.Ph., assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Cincinnati. "But there's no reason to treat symptoms you don't have. A single-purpose medication, aimed at your most annoying symptom, is often a better choice.

Here's what to look for:

Cough: "A cough is your body's way of keeping your lungs clear," says Kristen Binaso, R.Ph., spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association. "Most of the time, you don't want to take anything to suppress it."

During the day, manage a dry cough by keeping your throat moist with lozenges and drinking lots of fluids. At night, a suppressant containing dextromethorphan may quiet your cough so you can sleep. But avoid using cough medications if you're coughing up mucus or phlegm, since you want to get rid of it. Call your doctor if the mucus is green or yellow, your chest feels heavy, or if you are having difficulty breathing to rule out such infections as sinusitis or pneumonia.

Fever and body aches: Analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help relieve fever and body aches. Because it’s easy to get dehydrated when you have a fever, boost your intake of fluids. “And although we want a pill to feel better, the best medicine is staying home and getting some rest when you have a fever,” says Binaso. If your oral temperature runs more than 101.5 degrees for more than three days, call your doctor to rule out infections like pneumonia.

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