Can colds and the flu be "cured" with medications?

No medicines can "cure" colds and flu. However, there are many over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can ease the discomfort caused by the symptoms of colds and flu. In addition, there are prescription medicines and a vaccine that can treat and prevent the flu.

Note on antibiotics: Colds and the flu are causes by viruses and cannot be cured with antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, such as strep throat and ear, skin, and urinary tract infections. Using antibiotics for infections they are not able to treat makes the antibiotics less effective for infections they are supposed to treat (a situation called antibiotic resistance). Never take antibiotics to treat colds and flu.

To ease the discomfort from specific cold and flu symptoms, consider using the following types of OTC medicines:

  • To reduce fever and pain — analgesics: Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is generally preferred. Ibuprofen (Advil®) or naproxen (Naprosyn®) is also commonly used. Aspirin should be avoided due to its risk of developing Reye's syndrome. (Reye's syndrome is a condition that affects all body organs and is most harmful to the brain and liver.) Note on acetaminophen: Read all cold medicine package labels. Do not take more than one drug that contains acetaminophen. Taking too much acetaminophen can damage your liver. Acetaminophen doses should not exceed 4 grams per day. Individuals with liver damage or liver problems should not exceed 2 grams of acetaminophen per day.
  • To dry out the nose — antihistamines: Try an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl®). Because these products can make you sleepy, avoid driving and other complex tasks while taking these medicines. Loratadine (Claritin®), available (OTC), is a non-drowsy alternative, but may not be as effective as other antihistamines for reducing cold and flu symptoms. Other OTC antihistamines include Allegra®, Zyrtec®, and Xyzal®.
  • To relieve a stuffy, clogged nose — decongestants:Try an oral decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed®). However, insomnia, nervousness, and irritability can occur when taking these drugs. Those who are pregnant or have uncontrolled high blood pressure should avoid pseudoephedrine products. Often decongestants are combined with other drugs (especially antihistamines) in OTC medicines. A "-D" at the end of a medicine's name means it includes an oral decongestant.
  • To relieve a runny nose or sinus pressure — nasal steroids: Medications like fluticasone (Flonase®, available without a prescription) or mometasone (Nasonex®; prescription needed) can relieve symptoms. These medicines are also used for seasonal allergies. These are not the same as Afrin® or other OTC nasal preparations. Antihistamines will also help.
  • To make blowing your nose easier or loosening cough/mucus production — expectorants: Try guaifenesin (Robitussin®, Mucofen®, Humibid LA®, Mucinex®, Humibid E®). These products help thin the thick, discolored drainage coming out of the nose and mouth.
  • To reduce coughing — antitussives: Dextromethorphan can help suppress cough.
  • To relieve a sore throat: Try throat lozenges (such as Cepacol®) or gargle with warm salt water a few times a day. Analgesics are also helpful.
  • For other symptoms: OTC cold products (for example, Nyquil® or Tylenol Cold & Sinus®) can provide much relief. Be sure to read product labels to find the best cold preparation to match your symptoms and to determine if that medicine is safe for you.

What are other ways to treat and prevent the flu?

Antiviral prescription medicines and an annual flu vaccine are available for treating and preventing the flu.

Prescription anti-flu medicines include amantadine (Symmetrel®), rimantadine (Flumadine®), zanamivir (Relenza®), and oseltamivir (Tamiflu®). These drugs do not cure the flu, but they can make the symptoms milder and make you feel better more quickly. They are only effective when used in the first 48 hours of flu-like symptoms.

These drugs are not needed for healthy people who get the flu. They are usually reserved for people who are very sick with the flu (for example, those who have been hospitalized) or those who are at risk of complications from the flu, such as people with long-term chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or chronic obstructive lung disease, asthma) or older age.

Flu vaccine (by shot and nasal spray). Although there is currently no vaccine against the common cold, there is a vaccine to prevent the flu. The vaccine is available by both shot and nasal spray. It works by exposing the immune system to the viruses. The body responds by building antibodies (the body's defense system) against the flu. The flu shot contains dead flu viruses. The nasal spray contains live, but weakened, flu viruses. The nasal spray is only approved for healthy children and adults 2 to 49 years old and who are not pregnant.

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