What You Need in Your Medicine Cabinet for Cold and Flu Season


Sarah Lewis, PharmD

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You can’t predict when a cold or flu will strike. And once you—or a loved one—are sick, the last thing you want to do is spend time and energy shopping for medicine. So take some time while you’re healthy to prepare your medicine cabinet. Then the essentials will be on hand when you need them.

Take an inventory and clean out any expired medicines.

Before you head to the drug store, take an inventory of what you already have on hand. Discard any expired medicines. Check with your local pharmacy or waste management service for disposal rules and programs.

After you’ve cleaned out the old, make a list of what you need to buy. If you have a chronic medical condition, ask your doctor or pharmacist about the medicines that are safe for you. The same goes if you’re buying medicines for a baby or child.

Put fever and pain relief medicines first on the list.

Often, fever or body aches are the first sign something isn’t right. Headache, sore throat, and sinus pain may also accompany a cold or flu. So make sure you have medicines to relieve pain and bring down a fever—acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). For stubborn pain or fevers, you can alternate these two medicines every couple of hours. Be sure to follow package directions and warnings. For babies and children, find the correct pediatric non-aspirin product. Ask your pharmacist if you need help.

Have decongestants and antihistamines on hand.

Stuffy, running noses, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes are uncomfortable. These symptoms can interfere with sleep and prevent you from getting the rest you need. To find relief, have decongestants and antihistamines on hand. They’re sold under various brand names and store brands. Decongestants are sold at the pharmacy counter. Use care with combination products to make sure you aren’t doubling up on medicines.

Use caution with nasal sprays.

Decongestant nasal sprays are very effective at relieving nasal congestion. But it’s very important to follow the instructions for these products. Using them longer than recommended can cause symptoms to worsen. And children shouldn’t use them at all. Saline nasal spray is an inexpensive, very effective alternative. The salt water thins mucus and soothes nasal tissues. A suction bulb helps remove the mucus in babies and children.

Check out the cough medicines.

Cough is another symptom that can interrupt sleep and disturb your rest. But not all coughs are the same. Some are productive—meaning there’s a lot of mucus—and others are dry and hacking. Different cough medicines help these two types of cough. Expectorants help bring up the mucus of productive coughs. Cough suppressants quiet a dry cough. Both products are available under a variety of brand names and store brands. They also come as combination products.

Consider cough drops and throat lozenges.

Sometimes, taking oral medicines isn’t enough. Or maybe your symptoms are mild and you don’t want to take medicine. In these cases, look to lozenges and cough drops. These products can soothe a cough or sore throat right at the site. When they contain menthol, they may even help open inflamed nasal passages. Keep in mind these products aren’t suitable for young children as they pose a choking hazard.

Purchase some petroleum jelly.

Dry, cracked, raw noses can happen when you’re constantly blowing your nose. Applying petroleum jelly (Vaseline and others) can ease the irritation from using all those tissues. It also provides a moisture barrier to protect the skin.

Don’t forget the non-medicine tools.

Along with medicines, you need some tools in your cold and flu arsenal. This includes a good thermometer to measure fever. There are various kinds to suit just about anyone’s needs. If you need advice, ask your doctor or pharmacist. And make sure it has new batteries if it requires them. Other tools include a humidifier, antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and plenty of tissues.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 29, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Colds and the Flu. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/colds-and-the-flu.html
  2. Decongestants: OTC Relief for Congestion. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/decongestants-otc-...
  3. First Aid: Coughing. Nemours Foundation. http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/sheets/cough_sheet.html
  4. What Does a Medicine’s Expiration Date Mean? Institute for Safe Medication Practices. http://www.consumermedsafety.org/safe-medicine-storage-and-disposal/what-does-a-medicine-s-expiratio...

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