Cold, Flu, and Allergy Guide

Got the sniffles? Has the flu bug bit? Get the lowdown on what's ailing you or your loved one.


First, read this important message:

The information presented here is not a substitute for a doctor's advice or your own good judgment. Every individual is unique, and the suggestions offered here may not apply to you. If you have questions or concerns, please check with your doctor.

If you are feeling truly awful, see your doctor. If your condition does not improve within a reasonable period, see your doctor. If you are being treated for any medical condition, or if you have allergies or sensitivities to any medications, talk to your doctor before acting on any of the information presented here.

Use medicines wisely, whether prescription or over-the-counter. For complete information about warnings and proper use, always read the entire label before taking any medication.

Because laws vary from country to country, different forms of these drugs may be available depending on where you live.

Facts About Colds

Causes: Colds are caused by one of hundreds of common viruses that can easily be transmitted from person to person.

Symptoms: Stuffed nose/congestion, runny nose, fever, headache, cough, sore throat or fatigue.

When to see a doctor: Colds can sometimes lead to other infections. If a cold lasts longer than 10 days, consult with your physician.

Prevention: Keep your distance from people who are coughing or sneezing. Drink a lot of fluids (water is best) and wash you hands often.

General treatment strategies: Since there's no cure for a cold, the best advice is to get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids, especially water to moisten mucus membranes. Make sure you have plenty of ventilation.

Facts About the Flu

Causes: The flu is an acute respiratory infection caused by a virus. The virus is spread through airborne droplets of respiratory fluids when a person coughs or sneezes.

Symptoms: Fever, muscle aches and pains, dry cough, runny nose, stuffed nose/congestion, headache, and fatigue.

When to see a doctor: Call your doctor if you think you may have the flu. Call immediately if unexplained symptoms develop or you have an increased fever, blood in your mucus, neck pain or stiffness, or chest pain.

Prevention: Get a flu shot, especially if you're 65 or older or have chronic heart or lung disease. It takes time for your body to build up an immunity, so be sure to get the shot several weeks before flu season begins (late October or early November). Note: Do not get the flu vaccine if you are allergic to eggs (they're used to make the vaccine) or have a fever caused by another illness. Avoid crowds during flu season.

General treatment strategies: Rest, drink a lot of fluids, and take a pain reliever if you have a fever or any other physical discomfort.

Facts About Allergies

Causes: Any airborne irritant that triggers the release of histamine in your body. Trees and grass pollen is most common in spring and summer. Fall is the time for ragweed pollen, dust and molds.

Symptoms: A runny or stuffed nose, itchy/watering eyes, headache, sneezing, or sore throat.

When to see a doctor: If symptoms linger or worsen, make an appointment with your doctor. You may have a more serious infection or sinusitis.

Prevention: Try to avoid the allergens that trigger a response. Stay indoors as much as possible during hay fever season. Keep windows shut and use your air conditioner. Try not to rub your eyes. Get regular exercise, which helps keep nasal passages open. If over-the-counter remedies don't work effectively, see a doctor for other medications or desensitization therapy.

General treatment strategies: The same as those listed under Prevention. If these don't help, an antihistamine or nasal spray may bring relief.

Home Remedies and Prevention

Many time-honored nonmedical treatments for cold, flu, and allergy symptoms are safe and effective. Here are a few to try:

Get Extra Bed Rest

Pluses: You'll recuperate faster and protect others from your germs.

Minuses: Your schedule will have to change and you may miss a day or two of work.

Drink Extra Water

Uses: Keeps mucus membranes moist and can help control cough. Juices are OK, too, but skip drinks with caffeine.

Pluses: Cheap and easy.

Minuses: You'll spend more time in the bathroom.

Wash Hands Often

Pluses: One of easiest and most effective ways to avoid catching a cold.

Minuses: Dry hands in winter. Use hand lotion to compensate.

Cool Compresses

Uses: Can help reduce a fever or increase comfort.

Pluses: Provides fast relief.

Minuses: None

Warm Salt-Water Gargle

Uses: Soothes a sore throat.

Pluses: It's a natural treatment that's inexpensive. Provides instant relief.

Minuses: Let's just say they wouldn't make a candy bar that tastes like this.

Throat Lozenges

Pluses: Soothing action provides temporary relief of throat pain and they may reduce your impulse to cough. They're also cheap and can be used almost anywhere.

Minuses: You may not like the taste or even smell they can give off.

Steam Inhalation

Uses: A vaporizer or humidifier increases the moisture in the air to sooth dry, irritated nasal passages.

Pluses: Can increase your comfort by soothing a dry nose or throat.

Minuses: You'll need to invest in a humidifer. They're available at most discount and drug stores.

Drugstore Guide

There are many common nonprescription remedies for colds, the flu, and seasonal allergy symptoms. On the following pages, we've arranged them by type. Most of these remedies are available in combinations, and in generic form.

These medications offer temporary relief of many seasonal allergy symptoms -- runny nose, watery eyes, itching. Although generally safe, antihistamines often cause drowsiness. Read the warning labels completely if you are taking other medicines. Here are some antihistamines you'll find in over-the-counter medications.

Diphenhydramine

(dye fen HYE dra meen)

Uses: Temporary relief of allergy symptoms. In syrup form, diphenhydramine, is used to relieve a cough due to a cold or hay fever.

Pluses: Widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Should be taken before an allergy attack occurs to be most effective. Since diphenhydramine also helps control nausea and vomiting, it may disguise signs of appendicitis. If you experience stomach pain, cramping, or soreness be sure to tell your doctor you're taking this medicine.

Warnings: Older adults may be more sensitive to the side effects of antihistamines. Do not take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without first checking with your doctor. Also, certain medications, such as MAO inhibitors, don't mix well with antihistamines, so be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking other drugs. People with glaucoma, an enlarged prostate or a history of heart problems also should check first with their doctor.

Possible side effects: Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, irritability or nervousness. Know how your body reacts to an antihistamine before doing activities that require you to be alert, such as driving. May cause dryness in your throat, nose or mouth.

Common brand names: Benadryl, Bena D, Allermed, Phendry Children's Allergy Medicine, Noradryl.

Forms available: Capsules, tablets, elixir, syrup.

Chlorpheniramine

(klor fen EER a meen)

Uses: Temporary relief of allergy symptoms.

Pluses: Widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Should be taken before an allergy attack occurs to be most effective.

Warnings: Do not take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without first checking with your doctor. Also, certain medications, such as MAO inhibitors, don't mix well with antihistamines, so be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking other drugs. People with glaucoma, an enlarged prostate, or history of heart problems also should check first with their doctor.

Possible side effects: Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, irritability or nervousness. Know how your body reacts to an antihistamine before doing activities that require you to be alert, such as driving. May cause dryness in your throat, nose or mouth.

Common brand names: Chlor Trimeton, Chlor Trimeton Allergy, Teldrin, Pediacare Allergy Formula, Trymegan.

Forms available: Tablets, extended-release tablets and capsules, chewable tablets, and syrup.

Brompheniramine

(brome fen EER a meen)

Uses: Temporary relief of allergy symptoms.

Pluses: Widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Should be taken before an allergy attack occurs to be most effective.

Warnings: Older adults may be more sensitive to the side effects of antihistamines. Do not take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without first checking with your doctor. Also, certain medications, such as MAO inhibitors, don't mix well with antihistamines, so be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking other drugs. People with glaucoma, an enlarged prostate or a history of heart problems also should check first with their doctor.

Possible side effects: Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, irritability or nervousness. Know how your body reacts to an antihistamine before doing activities that require you to be alert, such as driving. May cause dryness in your throat, nose or mouth.

Common brand names: Dimetapp Allergy, Bromphen, Chlorphed, Dehist, Dimetane, Oraminic II.

Forms available: Capsules, elixir, tablets and extended-release tablets.

Clemastine

(KLEM as teen)

Uses: Temporary relief of allergy symptoms.

Pluses: Widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Should be taken before an allergy attack occurs to be most effective.

Warnings: Older adults may be more sensitive to the side effects of antihistamines. Do not take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without first checking with your doctor. Also, certain medications, such as MAO inhibitors, don't mix well with antihistamines, so be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking other drugs. People with glaucoma, an enlarged prostate or a history of heart problems also should check first with their doctor.

Possible side effects: Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, irritability or nervousness. Know how your body reacts to an antihistamine before doing activities that require you to be alert, such as driving. May cause dryness in your throat, nose or mouth.

Common brand names: Tavist, Tavist 1, Contact 12 Hour Allergy.

Forms available: Tablets and syrup.

Decongestants reduce mucus membrane swelling and clear nasal congestion. Many decongestants are combined with pain relievers to help reduce headache and sinus pain that often accompany congestion.

Pseudoephedrine

(soo doe e FED rin)

Uses: Clear nasal congestion and dry up nasal secretions.

Pluses: A wide selection of brand names to choose from.

Minuses: Young children and older adults may be more sensitive to the effects of this medicine so be sure to read the label.

Warnings: Pseudoephedrine may increase blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure. Liver damage may occur if you drink large amounts of alcohol and take acetaminophen.

Possible side effects: Diarrhea, loss of appetite, nervousness, dizziness, shortness of breath, or trouble sleeping.

Common brand names: Actifed Sinus Daytime, Allerest No Drowsiness, Bayer Select Head Cold, Bayer Select Maximum Strength Sinus Pain Relief, Contact Allergy/Sinus Day Caplets, Contac Maximum Strength Sinus, Dristan Cold, Ornex, Sine Aid, Sinus Excedrin Extra Strength, Sinus Relief, Sinutab Maximum Strength, Sudafed Sinus, Tylenol Sinus Maximum Strength, and Vicks DayQuil Sinus.

Forms available: Tablets, caplets, and gelcaps.

Phenylephrine

(fen ill EF rin)

Uses: Clear nasal congestion and dry up nasal secretions.

Pluses: It may be a better choice for children because it comes in chewable form.

Minuses: Young children and older adults may be more sensitive to the effects of this medicine so be sure to read the label.

Warnings: Phenylephrine may increase blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure. Don't drink alcoholic beverages while taking medication with acetaminophen. Liver damage may occur if you consumer large amount of alcohol and take acetaminophen.

Possible side effects: Diarrhea, loss of appetite, nervousness, dizziness, shortness of breath, or trouble sleeping.

Common brand names: Neosynephrine, Congespirin for Children (tablets).

Forms available: Chewable tablets, nasal drops, nasal sprays.

Warning: Phenylpropanolamine (PPA)

(fen ill proe pa NOLE a meen)

Uses: This drug is highly effective in clearing up nasal congestion and drying up nasal secretions.

Warning: Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked manufacturers to voluntarily discontinue marketing products that contain PPA, after a research study found it increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

Many common brands of over-the-counter cold-and-flu products contain PPA; if you bought your supply last year or before, read the ingredients list carefully before you take it. Throw away any products that contain PPA.

Forms that were available: Tablets, oral solution, and capsules.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can effectively reduce most of the aches, pains, and fever associated with colds, the flu, and allergies. Some also have effects on other symptoms (such as inflammation) that are not covered in these descriptions.

Ibuprofen

(eye byoo PROE fen)

Uses: Helps relieve pain and reduce fever.

Pluses: Generally suitable for both adults and children. Widely available in several forms and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Don't take more than 6 tablets in a 24 hour period.

Warnings: Do not take if you're allergic to aspirin. Don't take if you are pregnant without first checking with your doctor. Be sure to read the patient information included with the medicine. Don't give to children under 12 except under the advice and supervision of a doctor.

Possible side effects: Abdominal cramps, dizziness, drowsiness or lightheadedness.

Common brand names: Advil, Motrin, Motrin IB, Medipren, Bayer Select, Excedrin IB, Midol IB.

Forms available: Oral, tablets and chewable tablets, liquid.

Acetaminophen

(a seat a MIN oh fen)

Uses: Helps relieve pain and reduce fever.

Pluses: Widely available in many different forms and relatively inexpensive. Also, it is safe for all ages, from young children to older adults.

Minuses: If you need to take more than an occasional dose, don't drink alcoholic beverages. It may increase your chance of liver damage.

Warnings: Don't take more than what's recommended on the package. If too much is taken, liver or kidney damage may result. Also, children under 12 should not take acetaminophen more than 5 times a day. Acetaminophen may interefere with results of some medical tests, such as a blood glucose test for diabetics.

Possible side effects: Diarrhea, loss of appetite, stomach cramps or tenderness in the abdominal area are all signs you may have taken too much.

Common brand names: Tylenol, Aspirin Free Anacin, St. Joseph Aspirin Free Fever Reducer for Children.

Forms available: Tablets, caplets, gelcaps, liquid, suppositories, children's chewable tablets, infant drops.

Naproxen

(na PROX en)

Uses: Helps relieve pain and reduce fever.

Pluses: Widely available in several forms and relatively inexpensive.

Minuses: Studies have shown that children over age 2 who take naproxen may be more likely to develop a skin rash.

Warnings: Do not take if you are allergic to aspirin. Don't take if you are pregnant without first checking with your doctor. Be sure to read the patient information included with the medicine.

Possible side effects: Abdominal cramps, dizziness, drowsiness, or lightheadedness.

Common brand names: Alleve, Anaprox.

Forms available: Oral, tablet, and delayed-release tablets.

Aspirin

(ass purr in)

Uses: Helps relieve pain and reduce fever.

Pluses: Widely available and inexpensive.

Minuses: May cause stomach irritation. To curb stomach upset, take aspirin with food or after you eat.

Warnings: Do not give aspirin to a child with a fever or other flu-like symptoms without first checking with a doctor. Aspirin may cause Reye's syndrome, a serious illness that can be fatal. Also, if you take aspirin for a fever or sore throat and either lasts longer than three days, see your doctor.

Possible side effects: Abdominal or stomach cramps, nausea, or indigestion.

Common brand names: Anacin, Bayer, Bufferin, Ecotrin, Norwich, St. Joseph, and Arthritis Pain Formula.

Forms available: Tablets, chewable tablets, chewing gum tablets, delayed release tablets, extended relief tablets, and suppositories.

Oral Anesthetics

Uses: Includes a variety of products used to temporarily relieve sore throat.

Pluses: Fast acting.

Minuses: Some products not recommended for children under age 5.

Warnings: Varies by active ingredient. Read label carefully.

Possible side effects: Varies by active ingredient. Read label carefully.

Common brand names: Chloraseptic, Sucrets

Forms available: Liquid spray, lozenges.

Encouraging Coughs:

Expectorants thin mucus, helping a productive cough do a better job of clearing a congested chest.

Guaifenesin

(gwye FEN e sin)

Use: To help clear phlegm and mucus from the chest.

Pluses: Very effective in drying up a productive cough.

Minuses: Not something to give to small children. This medicine should not be given to children under 3 unless directed by a doctor.

Warnings: If your cough hasn't improved in 7 days and you have a sore throat, headache, fever or skin rash, see your doctor. It may be a sign that you have another medical condition.

Possible side effects: Diarrhea, dizziness, stomach pain, hives or nausea.

Common brand names: Robitussin liquid.

Forms available: Capsules, oral solution, syrup, and tablets.

Controlling Coughs:

True cough suppressants (also known as antitussives) work over an extended period of time. Hard candies and throat lozenges can be effective, too, though they are most effective while you are sucking on them.

Dextromethorphan

(dex troe meth OR fan)

Uses: To relieve a cough brought on by a cold of flu.

Pluses: Comes in a variety of forms for best comfort.

Minuses: Other medical problems, such as liver disease, asthma or emphysema, may affect dextromethorphan's use. Be sure to read the label and check with your doctor if you have these or other chronic ailments.

Warnings: Do not use longer than the label says. Although rare, some people have developed a dependence on dextromethorphan.

Possible side effects: Mild dizziness or drowsiness, nausea.

Common brand names: Hold, Children's Hold, Drixoral, Mediquell, Pertussin, Robitussin, St. Joseph Cough Suppresant for Children, Sucrets Cough Control Formula, Vicks Formula 44 Pediatric Formula.

Forms available: Capsules, lozenges, syrup, and chewable tablets.

Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, 2000.

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