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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.

Alternative Remedies

A variety of natural remedies have been touted as cold relievers, but do any of them work? The most well known are zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C. While these supplements don't seem to help prevent colds, they might reduce symptoms if taken at the first sign of a cold. However, studies are conflicting.

"[Zinc lozenges] do seem to reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold," Schachter says. Tallman says there's not enough evidence to support taking extra zinc. "Start taking it as soon as you start feeling symptoms," he says. Zinc lozenges can be taken every 2 hours while awake. Just avoid zinc nasal swabs, which can affect your sense of smell.

Studies show high doses of vitamin C -- up to 2,000 milligrams -- help reduce cold symptoms, but these high doses might cause side effects, such as stomach upset. Schachter says taking 500 milligrams of vitamin C at the onset or for the first few days of a cold can't hurt. As for echinacea, the best evidence exists for supplements containing the Echinacea purpurea species.

Sanitizer Savvy

You'll never need to treat colds and flu if you don't get them in the first place. The easiest way to avoid becoming sick is to wash your hands with good old-fashioned soap and warm water. As a backup, keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your medicine cabinet as well as in your purse or pocket to use throughout the day.

All sanitizers work about the same, but you might not like what they do to your hands. "A lot of the hand sanitizers are alcohol-based," says Tallman. "They can dry out the skin over a period of time." If dryness is a problem, try a sanitizer with added softening ingredients, such as a moisturizer or aloe. 

Caution: Over-the-Counter Medicines

Some cold and flu remedies might seem like a good idea, but our experts have some concerns about when it's best to take them. Before you stock up on these items, consider their suggestions:

Multisymptom cold and flu remedies

These medicines were designed to provide one-stop relief for a variety of cold and flu symptoms. But some doctors feel there is a downside to these products, reasoning that if you take them, you run the risk of treating yourself for symptoms you don't have.

If, for example, you take a multisymptom medicine containing acetaminophen, and then pop a couple of Tylenol, you can exceed the recommended dosage.

Think about your symptoms and try to choose a product that addresses those, not ones you don't have. "I'd look at the labels and see what active ingredients are in there," Tallman advises.

 However, you don't need to ban these products from your medicine cabinet entirely -- just use them judiciously and be sure to buy only multisymptom formulas that list your specific symptoms on the label, Schachter says.

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