What medicine should I have on hand for cold and flu season?

Candyce Collins, PharmD, is clinical pharmacist, Board Certified in Ambulatory Care Pharmacy, and a certified Anticoagulation Care Provider in Population Health Management at the Banner Corporate Center in Phoenix.

Question: With cold and flu season on the way, what over-the-counter medications should I have in my medicine cabinet?

Answer: Cold and flu season is coming, and stocking your medicine cabinet with the right medication(s) is time well spent. After all, you can’t predict when a cold or the flu will hit, but you can be prepared by having the right medications on hand.

There are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) medications to choose from that are effective in alleviating cold/flu symptoms. However, picking the appropriate product from the wall of options in your grocery store or pharmacy can feel overwhelming. Knowing the types of medicines used to treat different symptoms will help you select the right medication.

  • Antihistamines (e.g. chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine, loratidine) are used for a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes often caused by a cold or allergies.
  • Cough suppressants (e.g. dextromethorphan) can be effective in alleviating a hacking, non-productive cough.
  • Expectorants (e.g. guaifenesin) help loosen and bring up mucus and other material from the lungs.
  • Pain relievers/fever reducers (e.g. acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen) are often found in cold and flu medications to ease body aches and pains, and reduce elevated body temperature.
  • Nasal decongestants (e.g. oxymetazoline spray, phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine) alleviate a stuffy nose, as well as sinus congestion and pressure.
  • Lozenges containing topical/oral anesthetics (menthol) can relieve throat pain or relieve dryness.

Many of the OTC cold/flu products out there contain a combination of these different medications, but you can purchase the ingredients as individual products as well. Some ingredients can interact with other medications you may be taking, cause undesirable side effects, or may not be recommended due to certain medical or health conditions. To avoid potential problems with multi-ingredient products, select individual medications based on the cold/flu symptoms you typically experience. Also, check with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure the OTC cold/flu medication you choose will not negatively impact any medical conditions you may have.

Generally speaking, OTC medications for cold/flu are safe and well tolerated by most people. Still, strengths and dosages of medications vary, so pay close attention to the instructions and product warnings. Also, take the medicine as directed by the package label or by your health care provider. Taking more than directed will not provide more symptom relief, but does increase the chances of unpleasant side effects and harm.

Taking these medications does not guarantee your illness or symptoms will disappear. If cold/flu symptoms worsen despite using OTC medication, see your healthcare provider. He can help determine the nature of your illness and the right course of treatment.

Make sure you get your flu shot every year and if you have any questions regarding which cold/flu medications are right for you, talk with your Banner Family Pharmacy pharmacist or your health care provider. Finally, always consult a pediatrician or pharmacist before giving any medication to children under the age of 12.