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What Can I Buy for Fast Relief From a Cold or the Flu?

Most cold and flu drugs attack symptoms, not the specific viruses. They aren't a cure, but they can ease your symptoms or shorten your illness. There's no one right way to treat a cold or the flu. But here are some questions to ask your pharmacist to get the right over-the-counter medication for you.

#1 Should I Take a Decongestant or an Antihistamine?

This depends on your symptoms. If you have nasal or sinus congestion, then a decongestant can be helpful. If you have drainage -- either a runny nose or postnasal drip or itchy, watery eyes -- then an antihistamine may be helpful. Over-the-counter antihistamines often make people drowsy; decongestants can make people hyper or keep them awake. Antihistamines can make secretions thick, which can be a problem for people with asthma. Keep in mind that both these medications may interact with other drugs you may be taking for conditions such as heart disease, and they may worsen some conditions. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist which cold medication may be best for you.

#2 Is It Safe to Take a Decongestant if I Have High Blood Pressure?

Decongestants can increase blood pressure and heart rate, and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Pseudoephedrine is the primary oral decongestant available. In general, if your blood pressure is well controlled with medications, then a decongestant shouldn't be a problem as long as you monitor your blood pressure. This may not be true with certain types of blood pressure drugs. Check with your doctor or pharmacist about what may be best for you.

#3 How Often Should I Use Nasal Spray?

Nasal decongestants work fast to open breathing passages. But if you use them for more than three days in a row, you may suffer a "rebound effect," and end up more congested than you were at the start. Some doctors suggest using a saline spray instead of a medicated spray. Saline spray works more slowly but has no rebound effect.

#4 What's the Deal With Cough Medicine?

An occasional cough may clear the lung of pollutants and excess phlegm and probably shouldn't be treated. However, a persistent cough should be diagnosed and treated specifically. On the shelf you'll find numerous cough medicines with various combinations of decongestants, antihistamines, analgesics/antipyretics, cough suppressants, and expectorants. Ask your pharmacist which combination, if any, would be right for you.

#5 What Should I Take for Fever and Aches?

Fever may be a good thing. It helps the body fight off infection by suppressing the growth of bacteria and viruses and activating the immune system. Doctors no longer recommend suppressing fever for most people, except perhaps for the very young, the very old, and those with certain medical conditions such as heart disease or lung disease. However, if you are uncomfortable, it's fine to take these medications. Young people (including those in their early 20s), however, should avoid aspirin. Tylenol, or other medicines with acetaminophen, and Advil, or other medicines with ibuprofen, are best. Each type of medicine has its own set of risks, so check with your doctor or pharmacist as to which type of pain reliever or fever reducer is best for you. 

Be careful not to overdose! These drugs are often mixed in with cough and cold and flu remedies. Read the labels and don't take a separate pain remedy if your cough or cold medicine includes it. If you are unsure about the ingredients, talk to your pharmacist before taking the medicine.

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