Colds and Flu: What Medications to Take When

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

Runny nose or sneezing: An antihistamine may be helpful if you have a runny nose, sneezing or sinus drainage, which often causes a persistent tickle in your throat. Some OTC antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may make you drowsy, although newer drugs such as loratadine (Claritin) are non-sedating. However, these newer types of antihistamines may take a few days before providing relief. “Different antihistamines work a little differently for each person, so it may take time to find the one that’s best for you,” says Brown.

Sore throat: “Keep your throat moist,” says Binaso. “Drink lots of water, suck on hard candies or lozenges, and try an analgesic, such as acetaminophen, to reduce the pain.” Sprays and lozenges that contain menthol and benzocaine may give temporary relief, too. But if you have a severe sore throat with a fever, white patches in your throat, or if you are having difficulty swallowing or your sore throat has lasted several days, call your doctor to rule out strep throat or tonsillitis.

Stuffy nose: Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), decrease nasal swelling and secretions so you can breathe easier. Some people also find that saline nasal sprays and nasal irrigation with neti pots or saline washes lessen symptoms by thinning nasal secretions. For severe congestion, topical nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline give instant relief. “But limit use to three days because your body will grow accustomed to the medication, and then you’ll experience even worse congestion,” says Brown. If you have facial, ear or dental pain, or your mucus is yellow or green, call your doctor to make sure you don’t have a secondary infection like sinusitis.

While OTC medications won’t make a virus go away any faster, they may help you feel a little less miserable and allow you to get some rest. “Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before self-medicating with over-the-counter medications if you are taking prescription medication, are pregnant, or have chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure,” says Brown. If your cold or flu lingers more than a week, or if your symptoms seem to improve and then get worse, call your doctor because you may have developed a secondary bacterial infection.

Reviewed by Timothy Yarboro, M.D.


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