When the cold and flu strikes, the last thing you want to do is schlep to the store in search of relief. These are the best medications to keep at the ready the next time a cold or flu knocks you down.
Common cold or the flu?
From a sore throat and stuffy nose to coughing and body aches, the common cold and the flu share similar symptoms. “Sometimes, it is difficult to determine which you have,” says Steven Sperber, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Hackensack University Medical Center. With the flu, you often have a fever and feel wiped out and physically sick, while a cold has a slower onset with less intense symptoms. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu can lead to hospitalization and even death, especially among young children, those with chronic medical conditions, and older adults. While both are often treated with similar over-the-counter medications, it’s important to understand the different types that are available before you can find the best cold and flu medicine to relieve your symptoms.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication
A fever, body aches, and chills are common early symptoms of the flu. The best way to treat them is with non-steroidal anti-infammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen. They are the best cold and flu medicine for tackling fever and reducing aches and pains you can buy over the counter, but NSAIDs do have contraindications. “People with liver problems should not take some of these medications,” says Dr. Sperber. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, NSAIDs may also increase the chance of heart attack or stroke, especially if you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. Dr. Sperber also cautions that a high fever may be a sign that you should see a physician. “If the fever becomes high, and you feel that what you have is more than just a cold, it’s worth putting in a call to your doctor.”
Available in oral or as a nasal spray, antihistamines go after histamine, a chemical that your body produces during an allergic reaction. Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies or to combat an allergic reaction to a bee sting, explains Dr. Sperber. They are also good for treating symptoms of the cold and flu. In pill form, antihistamines reduce mucus production and improve the symptoms of itchy/watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose, and as a nasal spray, they help with congestion, postnasal drip, or an itchy or runny nose. “Antihistamines are good if you have a runny nose and you want to dry up secretions,” says Dr. Sperber, “but sometimes they can dry you out too much, making it difficult to breathe or talk.” Antihistamines can be sedating, and they can also interact with certain medications, like MAOIs, antidepressants, and seizure medications. Long-term use of antihistamines, such as Benadryl, among older adults have been linked to an increase in dementia. As with all medications, consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking them.
Coughing is a symptom of both the cold and the flu. Staying hydrated, raising you head while sleeping, and sucking on lozenges can help ease your cough, but the best cold and flu medicine to suppress a cough contains dextromethorphan (DM), an ingredient that works to block the cough reflex. Dextromethorphan is a fairly common ingredient in cough and cold preparations, says T. Jann Caison-Sorey, MD, associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, but he cautions that consumers of these medications should be mindful of other ingredients that can interfere with blood pressure control. It can also interact with medications such as MAOIs, and research shows it can lead to memory loss if taken in high doses. “Dextromethorphan, when used within recommended dosage guidelines, is an effective cough suppressant, but it also presents a risk of dissociative anesthetic properties that can occur as a side effect,” says Caison-Sorey. “If abused, it can result in dizziness, blurred vision, and impaired speech, among other complications.”
The opposite of the cough suppressant is the expectorant. “Expectorants are not good to take at night when you need to sleep, but they are good for clearing the lungs because if mucus sits in the lung, it can lead to pneumonia,” Dr. Sperber says. Productive, wet, throaty coughs are a normal symptom of the cold and flu. The most common ingredient found in expectorants, like Mucinex and Robitussin, is guaifenesin, which thins and loosens mucus in the lungs and airways, making it easier to cough and get rid of the mucus.
While many people prefer to use natural products, like zinc and vitamin C, to treat cold symptoms and speed up recovery time, according to the National Institutes of Health, there is no strong scientific evidence that any natural product is useful against the flu. “These options provide more of a soothing effect, and they are much safer than their chemically manufactured counterparts,” says Dr. Caison-Sorey. “But these medicines are created to reduce the symptoms associated with colds and the flu, not treat the underlying cause.” Oral zinc (in the form of lozenges such as Cold-Eeze and Zicam) has been shown to reduce the length of colds when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start, but intranasal zinc should be avoided as it has been linked to a loss of the sense of smell.
Originally Published on Readers Digest
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