Advise Me

How to Choose the Best Medication to Treat Your Cold or Flu

You feel the telltale cold or flu symptoms coming on—maybe it’s a cough, runny nose, sneezing and stuffy head. You will want to choose the best medication to help you feel better. But the choices in the pharmacy aisle are overwhelming. All kinds of medicines claim to control individual symptoms, or all your symptoms. How do you choose?

Kelly Erdos, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa, AZ, said to find the best option for you, ask three questions.

1. What medication has worked well for you before?

“When people ask me what they should take for a cold, I start by asking them what has worked for them in the past, Dr. Erdos said. “The most important thing is to take something that works for you. And that may be very different from what works for other people.”

2. What ingredients are in the medication?

Look at the label to see what active ingredients are in the medication. “There are a ton of cold and flu products that people buy thinking there is only one ingredient, but it may be a combination product. Taking the lowest dose and least amount of medications is key,” Dr. Erdos said. If you have a sore throat and a runny nose, you don’t need to take a medication that controls a cough, for example.

3. What other medications do you use?

If you take other medications or have health conditions, talk to a pharmacist or doctor about possible interactions. Keep in mind that it’s not just prescription medications that can cause interactions. You need to be careful with herbal supplements and over-the-counter medicines as well. Another product might be a better choice based on your other medications, age and other health conditions.

Children and seniors can be especially prone to side effects. And people with high blood pressure, diabetes or other health conditions may need to avoid certain medications. Dr. Erdos said, “Not all medications play nice together!”

Here’s what to do with expired cold and flu medications

You might be tempted to stock up on cold and flu medication, so you and your family are prepared the next time you get sick. But don’t overdo it—these medicines don’t last forever.

Erdos said, “Just like it’s best to toss out food when it is past the expiration date, it’s best to discard medications when they have expired.” Throwing away expired medication in your household trash isn’t always safe—so be sure to dispose of it properly.

Here’s when to see a doctor for your cold or flu symptoms

If your symptoms aren’t improving or are getting worse after a few days, call your primary care provider. An expert can help figure out if you have a cold, flu or an infection that needs antibiotics. Often, you can speak with a nurse who can help you decide if you need an appointment or if they can recommend something over the phone. You may be able to schedule a virtual visit so you can see a health care professional without leaving your home.

Here’s what else you can do to get better and stay healthy

Dr. Erdos said, “Even though you often need medications to get relief from a cold or flu, don’t underestimate the power of sleep and proper nutrition. When you are feeling sick, be sure to take time to rest and stay well hydrated.”

Good overall health can help you avoid catching the next cold or flu, too. “Going into cold and flu season, the best thing you can do to stay healthy is to wash your hands regularly and to keep your body strong with proper activity, nutrition and rest,” Dr. Erdos said.

This year and every year, one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy is get a flu shot. If you haven’t already, schedule your flu vaccination today with a Banner Urgent Care or Banner Health Clinic.

The bottom line

When you’re trying to treat cold or flu symptoms, the medication options can feel overwhelming. Remembering what worked for you in the past, choosing only the ingredients you need and avoiding interactions with other drugs can lead you to the best choice. If you need to connect with a health care provider to evaluate your symptoms, reach out to Banner Health.

These articles can teach you more about staying healthy during cold and flu season:

Cold and Flu Ear, Nose and Throat Infectious Disease