It’s officially cold and flu season, that magical time of year when the whole world feels like one big puddle of snot. And the worst part? There’s not much you can do. There’s no cure for the common cold, so the best we can do to ease the symptoms is to take some over-the-counter medicine, drink plenty of fluids, and stock up the latest season of Bridezillas to wait it out. Your friendly pharmacist or doctor can always point you in the right direction, but here are some tips on how to pick the pill (or liquid or lozenge) that offers the most relief in the quickest amount of time so you can sleep and let your body heal itself. (Of course, if your symptoms get worse or don’t go away within a few days, call your doctor.)
The Symptom: Aches and Pains
The Solution: Aspirin or Ibuprofen
If you’re feeling body aches, take an NSAID pain reliever like Advil, Motrin, or generic ibuprofen, which block the chemical signals that cause inflammation and stiffness. Many people find pain relievers like Excedrin or Tylenol (which contain acetaminophen) and Aleve (also known as naproxen) more effective for headaches. Regular aspirin will work, too, but it has the potential to cause more stomach upset.
The Symptom: A Fever
The Solution: Acetominophen, Ibuprofen, or Nothing
Some doctors and experts believe that most fevers don’t necessitate any special treatment, so for fevers of 101 degrees or less, doctors usually recommend abstaining from drugs. If a fever is 102 degrees or higher, acetaminophen and ibuprofen both have fever-reducing properties. Adults with a high fever can also take aspirin, but aspirin should never be given to children.
The Symptom: A Dry Cough
The Solution: A Cough Suppressant
When the throat is dry and irritated, the body naturally has the urge to cough. Dry, hacking coughs can be eased somewhat with suppressant medications (also called antitussives), which usually contain dextramethorphan to quiet the reflex. You can also try cough suppressant lozenges or a topical cream like Vicks VapoRub, which contain cooling and soothing analgesic ingredients like eucalyptus, camphor, and methol.
The Symptom: A Wet, Phlegmy Cough
The Solution: An Expectorant
If your cough produces mucus, don’t take a suppressant medication—you want something that will help you bring it up and clear out your airways. Expectorant medications (Mucinex, Robitussin DM) help thin the secretions and make them easier to eliminate, which gets rid of the bacteria-ridden mucus faster, speeding up healing. Look for an expectorant containing the ingredient guaifenesin, and also make sure to drink plenty of water.
The Symptom: Nasal Congestion
The Solution: A Decongestant
Decongestants work by constricting the blood vessels in the nasal passages. This reduces blood flow and shrinks swollen tissue. The result is that you can breathe a whole lot easier. Real decongestants contain pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, and although you don’t need a prescription for them, pharmacies do store them behind the counter for security reasons. Nasal sprays like Afrin contain an ingredient called oxymetazoline that works to relieve congestion in a similar way. If you use nasal sprays or drops, don’t use more than directed or for longer than three days, or congestion could worsen or return. Taking a regular antihistamine like Benadryl could help if your congestion is accompanied by sneezing or watery eyes, but antihistamines are primarily for allergy symptoms, and won’t do much to relieve the pressure and discomfort from a cold.
The Symptom: Several at Once
The Solution: Choose Wisely
Much of the time, congestion is accompanied by a cough, or fever is accompanied by aches. Many cold and flu medicines offer multi-symptom relief, but before you take something that fights multiple symptoms at once, make sure you actually have all of those symptoms, or you could end up taking medicine you don’t need that will actually make you feel worse. A better strategy may be to ask your pharmacist to recommend two separate products (like a nasal spray and ibuprofen, or a lozenge and a decongestant) that are safe to take at once.