Your Guide to OTC Meds for Cold & Flu

What are these drugs anyway?

You know you need to take something, but these names seem to be from some weird foreign language. Think of this as your secret decoder ring to figure out what you can take for your cold & flu symptoms.

I describe the main types of over-the-counter (OTC) medications in the links below, including what types of symptoms they treat, and some things you may need to watch out for. Please note that none of these drugs will actually cure the cold or flu, but they may help you be a little more comfortable as your body fights it.

In order for these medications to be marketed as treating these symptoms, the manufacturers must perform studies showing safety and effectiveness to the FDA. An FDA approval is not the same as an endorsement. And the studies performed may not include people that have the same characteristics and medical conditions as the general population.

I’ve tried to provide as much information as possible, however, you’ll need to always read and follow the Drug Fact labels, and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any specific questions, especially if you are pregnant, have other medical conditions, or take other medications.

When you take care of your kids with cold and flu symptoms, make sure you carefully read the Drug Fact labels because they give you information based on your child’s age and weight.

Many cold and flu medications for children younger than 2 years old were taken off the market several years ago. This is because they had not been studied for use in children, and it is often too easy to give children too much medication. If you aren’t sure about what you can give to your child, ask your pharmacist or check with your pediatrician.

Here are the categories of medications available OTC (click on each for more information):

What else can you do?

There are several drug-free things you can do to make you feel better when you have a cold or the flu. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and get some rest. Using a humidifier, drinking hot tea, and eating hot broth-based soup can help with congestion.

Saline sprays are a great option for clearing out the mucus in your nose, especially since you can use these as much as you need to as they are medication-free. And nasal strips may help open up your nose to help you breathe a little easier. (But they won’t score you any fashion points!) For the little ones, use a suction bulb to clear out mucus.

If your throat is bothering you, gargling with salt water can help. Just dissolve ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water. Or you can use ice chips to help numb up your throat or honey to sooth a scratchy throat, but be careful not to give honey to infants under age one since honey may contain spores from the bacteria that causes botulism.

Finally, if you can handle the uncomfortable sensation, you can use a nasal rinse, like the Neti pot. Just make sure you use distilled, sterile water, or boiled water (after it has cooled!) to avoid introducing harmful microbes. And make sure you wash the pot thoroughly or run it through the dishwasher ensure it is clean.

What about other remedies?

Three common cold remedies are vitamin Cechinacea, and zinc. These are not regulated by the FDA as drugs. Instead they are seen as dietary supplements, so the manufacturers of these products do not have to perform the same types of studies to show safety and effectiveness that drug manufacturers do.

Vitamin C may help some with preventing or shortening colds, but for most it probably doesn’t do much. However, since vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, taking large amounts shouldn’t cause harm since your body can clear out any excess if it doesn’t need it.

Studies on echinacea have mixed results. It may help decrease the severity of symptoms and decrease the length of your cold. However, echinacea may interact with other medications, so you should check with your doctor if this is the case.

Like vitamin C and echinacea, zinc may help with the severity and duration of your cold. However, zinc nasal swabs may affect your sense of smell, so you should stick to zinc lozenges. It is possible to overdose on zinc, so make sure you don’t use more than the recommended amounts on the label. 

Where to find more information