Colds and the flu are among the most frequent reasons people miss work or school. Adults average two or three colds a year, and as much as 20 percent of the U.S. population gets influenza every flu season. (1) There is no cure for the common cold or the flu, but most cases can be managed at home.
At-home treatments include plenty of bed rest, avoiding physical exertion, and drinking fluids to prevent dehydration. Any type of fluid other than alcohol is fine, but it’s a good idea not to consume a lot of caffeinated beverages, which can disrupt sleep.
“Most people can help ease their symptoms by getting plenty of rest and staying well hydrated with fluids,” says Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Allowing yourself to rest, especially while you have a fever, also gives your body the strength it needs to fight the virus.”
Does Over-the-Counter Cold Medicine Help?
Over-the-counter pain and fever reducers or decongestants can lessen cold and flu symptoms, but they will not treat the underlying viral infection.
There are many nonprescription products available to manage cold and flu symptoms, including:
2.Aspirin, for people age 19 and older
3.Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen)
6.Cough suppressants, like Robitussin; or expectorants, like Mucinex
Still, these medicines have side effects and can pose a health risk in patients with pre-existing conditions likehigh blood pressure, heart disease, or allergies.
Though rare, taking too much acetaminophen can be dangerous to the liver and may be unrecognized because so many cold and flu preparations contain acetaminophen.
Acetaminophen is included in multiple remedies for colds or sinus symptoms,” says Scott E. Glaser, MD, president of Pain Specialists of Greater Chicago in Illinois. “If an individual is not aware of this fact, he may unintentionally expose himself to amounts of acetaminophen in the danger zone.”
When taking over-the-counter cold medicines, tally up the combined amount of acetaminophen in all of the products you are using. Make sure you are not taking more than the FDA’s recommended maximum daily dose of 4,000 milligrams. (2)
According to a report published in 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine, medicines that combine acetaminophen with the decongestant phenylephrine can cause serious side effects, including dizziness and tremors. (3)
The FDA warns that the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, increases the risk for heart attack and stroke. Frequent use of NSAIDs over long periods of time is also associated with gastrointestinal bleeding. (4)
Children and teenagers ages 18 and under should not take aspirin due to risk of a rare but serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
Natural Remedies: Herbs and Supplements
There isn’t a lot of solid, clinical support for the effectiveness of herbal remedies, but many people believe herbs can help prevent or treat cold and flu symptoms. This is called a placebo effect.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, popular herbal remedies include:
1.Echinacea Echinacea is used to reduce the duration of a cold or the flu.
2.Elderberry Extract To reduce congestion and increase perspiration
3.Eucalyptus To relieve congestion, loosen phlegm, and soothe a sore throat
4.Licorice To treat a sore throat
5.Peppermint (Menthol) To thin mucus, relieve congestion, and loosen phlegm
6.Slippery Elm To soothe a sore throat
7.In general, herbal remedies are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Because herbs can have side effects and can interact with medication, use them only under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
While there is no strong evidence that dietary supplements can help treat cold or the flu, research suggests that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and the mineral zinc may reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. (5,6) But these supplements can interact or interfere with medication. Tell your doctor about any dietary supplements and medicines you may take.
Cold and Flu Home Remedies
Besides bed rest and fluids, the following home remedies may provide some cold and flu symptom relief by providing hydration, clearing nasal and throat passages, and easing discomfort such as headaches or sore throat:
Drinking hot green, black, or herbal tea, flavored with lemon or honey, if desired
Eating hot chicken soup
Using a humidifier to moisten dry air
Taking a hot shower or simply sitting in the bathroom with the shower running to create steam
Bringing a large pan of water to a boil, taking it off the heat, then inhaling the steam by leaning over the water, with or without a towel draped over your head to create a “steam tent”
Gargling with hot salt water to ease a sore throat
Using a neti pot or similar device to rinse the nasal passages with saline
Placing a hot compress on your forehead or nose to help with headache or sinus pain
Is There Medication for the Flu?
Yes, antiviral drugs may be used both to help prevent and to help treat flu caused by influenza A or B.
They are more commonly prescribed to people who either cannot be vaccinated against the flu or have a high risk of developing flu complications. People at high risk of flu-related complications include:
2.Very young children
3.People with cardiovascular disease
4.People with chronic lung disease (such as COPD)
5.People with diabetes
6.People with HIV and other conditions that weaken the immune system
There are four FDA-approved antiviral drugs that the CDC recommends to treat flu this season. They are:
1.Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is available as a liquid or a capsule, and can be used to treat flu in infants as young as two weeks.
2.Relenza (zanamivir) is available as a powder that is inhaled, and has been approved for treatment of the flu in people ages 7 and older.
3.Rapivab (peramivir) is given intravenously, and is approved for flu treatment in people ages 2 and older.
4.Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) is a fast-acting, single-dose pill that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved in October 2018.
“Antiviral medications might shorten the duration of symptoms somewhat, but in order for them to be effective, they need to be started in the first two days of illness,” says Dr. Ohl.
The CDC stresses that these drugs are a second line of defense against the flu after vaccination. Getting the flu shot remains the best way to prevent seasonal influenza in the first place.