OTC medications won’t shorten the duration of the flu, but they can help reduce symptoms.
OTC pain relievers can lessen the headache and back and muscle pain that often accompany the flu. In addition to the fever reducers acetaminophen and ibuprofen, other effective pain relievers are naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin (Bayer).
Aspirin should never be given to children younger than 18 years for flu-like symptoms. It could cause Reye’s syndrome, which results in brain and liver damage. This is a rare but serious and sometimes fatal disease.
Learn more: Reye's syndrome »
Cough suppressants inhibit the cough reflex. They are useful in controlling dry coughs without mucus. An example of this type of drug is dextromethorphan (Robitussin).
Decongestants can relieve a stuffy nose from the flu. Some decongestants found in OTC flu medications include pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed) and phenylephrine (in DayQuil).
People with hypertension should avoid this type of medication. It may increase blood pressure.
Itchy eyes and a runny nose are not common flu symptoms. However, if you do have them, antihistamines can help. First-generation antihistamines have sedative effects that may also help you sleep. Examples include:
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- doxylamine (NyQuil)
To avoid sedative effects, however, you may want to try second-generation medications such as cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin, Alavert).
Many OTC cold and flu medications combine two or more classes of drugs. This helps them treat a variety of symptoms at the same time. A walk down the cold and flu aisle at your local pharmacy will show you the variety.
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