Colds & flu: tips to lessen (and even prevent) symptoms

Nearly all of us get a common cold or the flu at some point in our lives. Adults usually have 2–4 colds per year, and children have even more. Seasonal flu is also very common, but its severity and spread can vary from year to year. Remember just how quickly the H1N1 influenza spread in 2009.

colds vitamin C

Can vitamin C reduce the duration of a cold? Studies aren’t sure, but there’s some indication it can boost your immune system.

Both are respiratory infections caused by viruses, and have similarities and differences in their symptoms and treatments. The common cold is usually caused by the rhinovirus, while the flu is caused by influenza viruses. Your risk of getting the flu is greatly reduced by getting vaccinated.

There is no foolproof way to prevent a cold – and no way to cure it – but you can treat the symptoms.

Treatment: What do I take once I have a cold/flu?

Over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough remedies are some of the most commonly used medicines in the U.S. They may help ease your symptoms and can help you feel better. Making good choices about the use of OTC products is challenging, since choices can be confusing – especially combination OTC products.

Relieve pain and fever with analgesics, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Acetaminophen does not have the anti-inflammatory benefits of ibuprofen or naproxen, and it’s important not to exceed recommended dosages. Also, aspirin should not be given to anyone under 18 years because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly disease.

colds chicken soup

Sometimes the best cold remedy is Mom’s chicken soup.

Some non-prescription antihistamines may reduce the sneezing and runny noses associated with the common cold (although their overall effectiveness in treating colds has been debated). Non-drowsy antihistamines are available without a prescription. Decongestants may also provide some benefit. Medical experts recommend against using cough and cold drugs in children under 6 years old; talk to your doctor or pharmacist before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cough medicine.

Cough and cold lozenges, warm tea or soup can all help relieve some of the symptoms of the common cold and flu.

Drink plenty of fluids. This can reduce symptoms like a sore throat and stuffy nose, and – along with rest – may help strengthen your immune system.

Antibiotics shouldn’t be used to treat a common cold. They won’t help, and may lead to resistance. However, if you don’t get better (or have worse symptoms) after 10 days, or develop severe symptoms that include a fever higher than 102°F, thick nasal drainage, or facial pain for at least three days after the onset of symptoms, you may have a bacterial infection and should seek medical attention to determine the need for antibiotics.

All medicines have the potential for side effects, so don’t forget to read the product labels and ask your pharmacist and doctor questions.

Prevention: Can I take anything to lessen/prevent a cold or flu?

Antiviral medications can have some benefit in treating flu if started within two days of the onset of symptoms. However, for most people, getting vaccinated against the flu is the easiest and most effective way to reduce their risk of infection. An annual vaccination can protect you and help you avoid spreading infection to those unable to receive the vaccine.

For colds, zinc may or may not be helpful. While zinc is essential for your immune system, the evidence on its benefits for treating colds is mixed. Some studies report that zinc syrup or lozenge during the first few days of a cold may shorten the length of a cold. Other studies report no benefit from taking zinc tablets or lozenges. Too much zinc can be dangerous.

Vitamin C supplements. Studies aren’t certain on the use of vitamin C to prevent or treat the common cold – some show a decreased duration of cold symptoms, while others show no benefit at all. High doses of Vitamin C (greater than 1500 mg a day) can cause kidney stones, diarrhea and abdominal bloating.

Be well, stay well!

~ Pharmacist Andy

  • Bessie Petroff

    I am taking Spriva inhaler once a day as maintenance for Bronchiectasis. Literature states I should not use with other drugs. I just take Centrum vitamin and an occasional glass of red wine. Is the wine a problem since it states …no alcohol.

    • Pharmacist Andy

      According to the safety information for Spiriva, Spiriva may cause dizziness or blurred vision. These effects may be worse if you take it with alcohol or certain medicines. Use Spiriva HandiHaler with caution. Do not drive or perform other possibly unsafe tasks until you know how you react to it. Since alcohol can cause dizziness, it is best to check with your healthcare provider. You can check for possible drug interactions using this feature on the Walgreen’s web site,

  • Melissa Sweet

    I have found that taking extract of elderberry, if I take it at the first sign of a viral infection, most always prevents it from taking hold. Also, it cuts the duration if I take it during an infection.