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Tips for Treating the Cold and Flu

What to stock in your survival kit for fighting the cold and flu this winter.

Stuffy Nose Solutions

When your nose is stuffed, you can't breathe, let alone taste or smell. To help you breathe more easily, you've got a choice: an oral or nasal decongestant to help dry up mucus production.

Nasal decongestants are faster acting, but the drawback is they need to be limited to no more than three days of use (after that, you might get a rebound effect, when your congestion returns and gets worse). If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, talk with your doctor before taking an oral decongestant, as it may raise your blood pressure.

An effective way to relieve congestion naturally is with a saline (salt and water) nasal spray. Saline sprays are especially good for kids, because they help clear out mucus without the side effects of nasal decongestant sprays.

Antihistamines are typically taken to relieve runny noses and sneezing that come with a cold. But some doctors do not recommend antihistamines for a cold because they don't offer much relief and can have troubling side effects. The downside to the older, first-generation antihistamines (such as Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton) is that they can make you feel groggy.

"Normally, you want to use the second-generation antihistamines," says Neil Schachter, MD, professor of medicine and community medicine and medical director of the Respiratory Care Department of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu.

Newer antihistamines, including Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec, are less sedating and their effects tend to last longer, he adds. Not sure which one to choose? Try out different brands until you find the one that works best for you.

Cough Care

Both a cold and the flu are respiratory illnesses and have similar symptoms, including a cough. In fact, that's one way you can pick up either one, when someone near you coughs and droplets are sprayed onto any nearby surface. Touch that surface, and you may soon be sick and coughing yourself. Over-the-counter cough medicines won't cure a cough related to a cold or flu, but they can help calm a cough.

Schachter says drinking tea with honey or another warm liquid is probably just as effective as medication for soothing a cough.

But if a cough still bothers you, OTC cough medicine with dextromethorphan and/or guaifenesin may offer relief. If you're still coughing, see your doctor: You may need a prescription cough medicine.

If you've been hacking for a couple of weeks, are short of breath, or have a fever after five days, see your doctor to find out what's causing your cough.

Sore Throat Soothers

When your throat is scratchy and irritated, medicated cough drops, such as honey-lemon, can be very soothing. "Honey coats the back of your throat," Schachter says, and that coating relieves irritation and can reduce your urge to cough. Just don't overdo it. Cough drops -- even the medicated ones -- can be as sugary as candy. (Never give cough drops to kids under 3 due to the choking risk, and honey itself should not be given to children under 1.)

Any sore throat that lingers or is very painful warrants a call to your doctor. It could be strep throat or another bacterial infection.

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