Treating Cold and Flu: Your Shopping List

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on October 01, 2020

You don't have to be a Boy Scout to know you should always be prepared -- especially during cold and flu season. Chances are someone in your family is going to get sick. Is your medicine cabinet well stocked? Use the list below to create your cold and flu survival kit so you'll be prepared at the first sneeze.

Decongestants and antihistamines

Decongestants help relieve stuffy nose, and antihistamines may help sneezing and runny nose. They are often in multi-symptom cold medicines. Don't take -- or give your child -- two medicines at the same time that have the same ingredients. Don't give cough and cold medicine to children under age 4 unless you've spoken to their health care provider first. Read the labels.

Cough medicines

Cough suppressants work best for dry, hacking coughs that keep you awake. Expectorants work best for productive coughs. They help thin mucus and make it easier to cough it up. Cough drops may soothe an irritated throat. Don't give cough and cold medicines to children under age 4 unless their health care provider says it's OK, and don't give cough drops to children under age 3.

Pain and fever reducers

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen help relieve pain and bring down a fever. They are often included in multi-symptom cold and flu medicines, so be sure to read the label carefully and don't take -- or give your child -- two medicines at the same time that have the same ingredients. Ask your doctor before giving any medication to a child under age 6 months.

Nasal congestion relief

Rinsing out your nose with salt water can reduce congestion and get rid of cold virus particles in your nasal passages. For an infant, use saline drops and then gently suction out each nostril with a bulb syringe.

Multi-symptom or nighttime formulas

These medicines often contain a pain and fever reducer, cough suppressant, expectorant, and decongestant (daytime formula) or antihistamine (nighttime formula). Be sure to read the label carefully and don't take -- or give your child -- two medicines at the same time that have the same ingredients. Not for children under age 4.


Although more research is needed, studies have shown that vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc lozenges may help shorten the duration of cold symptoms. Tell your doctor about any vitamins or supplements you take, and always ask your doctor before giving a supplement to a child.


To check for fever, consider the following options:

  • Digital thermometers, which use electronic heat sensors to record body temperature and can be used in the rectum (rectal) -- especially to check the temperature of an infant or toddler-- mouth (oral) or armpit (axillary)
  • Digital ear thermometers (tympanic membrane), which use an infrared ray to measure the temperature inside the ear canal
  • Temporal artery thermometers, which use an infrared scanner to measure the temperature of the temporal artery in the forehead and can be used even while a child is asleep

Other items to have on hand:

  • Cool mist vaporizer or humidifier. These may help relieve coughing and congestion. Change the water frequently to avoid mold and bacteria in the water.
  • Bottles of throat spray. Throat sprays that contain a local anesthetic numb a sore throat to relieve pain. Ask your doctor before giving to a child under age 3.
  • Jar of mentholated rub. Dab some under (not in) your nose to relieve skin irritated from wiping and blowing your nose. The menthol vapors may also relieve nose congestion.
  • Box of nasal strips (10-12 strips). These may help relieve congestion in your nose by opening up your nasal passages.


From the Grocery

Warm liquids

Warm liquids like tea and soup may soothe a sore throat and help relieve congestion. Black tea and green tea have disease-fighting antioxidants. Decaffeinated herbal tea can be soothing and hydrating.


Be sure to throw away a tissue after wiping your nose. Used tissues can spread the cold virus to whatever they touch.


Disinfectants can help clean surfaces like door handles, keyboards, and light switches of cold germs. When you can't wash your hands, gel sanitizers or alcohol-based wipes with 60%-90% alcohol get rid of germs.

Other items to have on hand:

  • Honey. Honey in warm water or tea can help relieve a cough or sore throat. Don't give honey to a child under age 1.
  • Citrus fruits and juices (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes). It's not clear whether these fruits -- rich in vitamin C -- will help prevent or treat a cold. But they are loaded with antioxidants that are good for your overall health.