Cold and flu treatments

Cold and flu are highly contagious. Even if you take preventive measures like hand washing and getting a flu shot you’ll probably still catch a cold or flu several times each year. At times when you’re ill, managing cold and flu symptoms appropriately is important as they can reduce your productivity at home and at work, and create extra expenses for medicines and trips to the doctor or pharmacy.

Managing cold and flu symptoms begins with eating and drinking a good combination of healthy foods and beverages and using natural remedies that have been proven to relieve cold and flu symptoms. However, if these measures alone are not enough to help you cope with your symptoms, you’ll also need to be able to choose medicines which are appropriate for treating your symptoms, and avoid those which you don’t need or are inappropriate for treating colds and flus.

Relieving specific cold and flu symptomssick

Sometimes you’ll need to take medicine when you have the common cold or influenza, and it’s important to choose medicines to treat the specific symptoms you have. Combination cold and flu medicines treat multiple symptoms (e.g. a single tablet might contain medicines for treating headache and blocked nose), some of which you may not have. If you don’t have a particular symptom, there is no need to treat it. Choosing symptom specific medications will ensure you don’t take medicines you don’t need, and also reduce your medicine bill.

Stuffy nose treatments

Stuffy noses and runny noses are the most common symptoms of a cold. There are many natural remedies like nose blowing and steam inhalation you can use to relieve a stuffy nose. If these are not enough to make your stuffy nose manageable, medications are also available.

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Nasal decongestants

Nasal decongestants which contain medicine like pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline and xylometazoline) reduce blood flow to the nose by constricting the blood vessels that feed it, and also act on the mucus membranes of the nose to reduce swelling that contributes to your nose feeling blocked and stuffy. They can be used by adults and children twelve years or older. Never to give nasal decongestants to children 6-11 years unless a doctor has prescribed them. These medicines should not be given to children 6 years or younger.

Nasal decongestant medications are available in tablet form or as a nasal spray and can be purchased without a prescription at pharmacies. Nasal spray formulations begin to relieve nasal congestion faster than tablets. However, they can irritate the nose and if that occurs, congestion might become worse instead of better. To avoid irritating the skin in the nose, use nasal sprays for a maximum of three days.

Always follow the instructions on the in the medicine packet, and never take more medicine than the leaflet recommends. Never share the nasal spray applicator with another person as you may also share you cold and flu germs with them.

For babies and children six years and under who are too young to use nasal decongestant medicines, apply saline nasal drops to clear the nose and reduce congestion.

Other medicines for relieving stuffy nosesblowing nose

If you experience hayfever (allergic rhinitis ) antihistamines may also be effective for treating sneezes and runny noses associated with cold and flu.


Vaporubs can help relieve a blocked, stuffy nose. They are thick gels containing menthol and/or camphor which are rubbed into the skin of the chest and throat and then covered with a warm dry cloth up to three times per day. Note that vaporubs contain strong chemicals which can be dangerous if swallowed by a baby, so you should never apply vaporub to your baby’s chest. When applying to the chest of an adult or child, it is important to avoid putting the vaporub on irritated skin and the skin surrounding the eyes.

Sore throat cures

Natural remedies like salt water gargle and lemon tea are often all you need to relieve sore throats, however sometimes you’ll need medicines as well.

Cough lollies containing medicine

Cough lollies which contain medicines, often called medicated lozenges, help relieve sore throats by increasing the amount of saliva your mouth produces, and lubricating the throat. They may also contain analgesics to relieve pain, antiseptic to kill germs and anti-irritant ingredients to relive coughing. Always follow the instructions in the packet when using medicated lozenges. They should be used for a maximum period of two days.

Throat gargles and sprays containing medication

Medicated throat sprays and gargles are available over the counter from pharmacies, but research has shown that gargling with homemade salt water gargle is just as effective as gargling with medicine from the pharmacy. If you consider using a throat gargle or spray containing medicine, bear in mind that they should not be used by people who have had a sore throat for longer than 7 days, or those who have a high fever, rash, severe headache or nausea and vomiting, or who have previously experienced hypersensitivity (allergic) reactions.


Analgesics, such as paracetamol, and aspirin can help with a sore throat.However, aspirin must not be given to children under 16 years of age (unless prescribed by a doctor), due to its association with Reye’s syndrome.

Stop coughing

Cough medicine isn’t harmful (except for babies and young children- it is a major contributor to accidental drug overdose), but it doesn’t help a cough much either. A productive cough (a wet cough which clears mucus from the throat and lungs) is an innate immune defense and, although it may be irritating it actually helps your body clear the cold or flu viruses responsible for your symptoms.coughing

When a cough is productive (wet) it should not be suppressed using cough medicine, except for short periods when you really can’t cope with your cough. For example, it may be appropriate to use cough medicine just before bed, to settle your cough down while you get to sleep. An expectorant cough medicine (a cough medicine which loosens the mucus in your respiratory system) may be used if you need something extra to settle a wet cough. But bear in mind that simply drinking eight cups of water per day plenty of water will have the same effect in relieving coughs.

Non-productive, dry coughs are also irritating. However, unlike wet coughs, they do not assist the immune system to clear cold and flu viruses from your body. If you have a dry cough that is interfering with your lifestyle, you can treat it using a cough suppressant (but don’t use a cough medicine which contains codeine, as codeine-containing medications are addictive). These medicines are also called anti-tussives and the best evidence is for anti-tussive cough medicines containing dextromethorphan.

Cough medicines which contain both a cough suppressant and an expectorant to loosen mucus are available, but they are not recommended for treating coughs associated with cold and flu. If your cough does not stop using an expectorant (if it’s a wet cough) or an anti-tussive (if it’s a dry cough), go to the doctor for advice. You should also consult your doctor if your cough gets worse, you start wheezing, or you feel short of breath.

Headache and body aches

Analgesics (painkillers) including paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin can be used to treat head or body aches. Aspirin should not be used by children under 16 years of age as it is associated with Reye’s Syndrome.


Analgesics can also be used to relieve fever.

Avoid antibiotics

Antibiotics are not effective against cold and flu viruses; they only work for bacterial infections, not viruses. They will not make cold and flu symptoms less severe or go away faster, nor will they prevent you passing your cold or flu on to someone else.

However, antibiotics are still sometimes thought of as cold and flu treatments and sometimes prescribed to treat cold or flu. This is unnecessary. If you take antibiotics for cold or flu you’ll be exposed to unnecessary side effects.Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them also contributes to antibiotic resistance, meaning that antibiotics may not work as well when you do need them.pill

Antibiotics should only be used to treat bacterial infections which occur as complications of the flu (e.g. an ear infection, streptococcal infection).

Antiviral medications for influenza

Antiviral medicines fight viruses. There are two antiviral medicines available which can help treat and prevent infuenza A and B infection; oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). Oseltamivir and zanamivir are effective for both human and bird (avian) flu. They are prescription only medications.

Using these medicines when you have the flu can help reduce the duration of your illness and the severity of your symptoms. They are most effective if you start taking them within 48 hours of the first symptoms. However, antivirals are not always necessary; they are usually prescribed to people with a high risk of developing influenza complications like pneumonia.

More information

For more information on the common cold and influenza, types of influenza and treatments and tips for preventing influenza, see
Cold and Flu.


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