Doctors say over-the-counter cough and cold medicine should be used minimally.
“If it turns out that you’re coughing all night long and you can’t get proper rest, go ahead and take it so you can get some sleep. Your body needs sleep,” says Dr. Susan Hamada, an internist with Sherman Physician Group in South Elgin. “If you’re not that uncomfortable, don’t take it if you don’t need it.”
What works and what doesn’t
Cold medication may temporarily reduce symptoms, Hamada says, but it does not accelerate the healing process.
A child younger than 6 should not be given cough or cold medicines because they can be dangerous and they lack proof of effectiveness, says Dr. Boguslaw Bonczak, a family practitioner at Algonquin Family Medicine, which serves Kane and McHenry counties.
Drink plenty of fluids, Bonczak says, and stay home for one or two days to rest and prevent spreading the virus.
He also suggests using acetaminophen or ibuprofen as a painkiller for those 6 months and older.
Both doctors recommend saline nasal spray or drops for all ages. Saline relieves congestion and helps prevent secondary infections, Hamada says.
Vitamin C, zinc and echinacea are examples of supplements touted as cold remedies. But Bonczak says more proof is needed to determine whether they work.
Hamada has heard positive feedback from her patients about echinacea and zinc. When used for several days, she says, the supplements seem to help somewhat to prevent a cold.
“I think, out of all the supplements, honey might be helpful,” Bonczak says.
Research shows that honey calms coughs and soothes throats. Honey is generally safe for children 1 and older and can decrease coughs for children and adults, Bonczak says.
Lozenges and warm salt water also can relieve a sore throat, he says. However, lozenges should not be given to young children because they are a choking hazard.
Seek medical attention if you are sick for more than two weeks or have a high fever, chest pain, shortness of breath, a persistent cough, severe body aches or headaches, sinusitis or an ear infection, Bonczak says.
Also see your doctor if you feel nauseated or dizzy, are dehydrated, feel a heaviness in the chest or have eye, teeth or other facial pain from a sinus problem, Hamada says.
Know the symptoms
Both cold and flu viruses can lead to a secondary problem, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, a sinus infection or an ear infection. But the flu is more likely to cause severe illness.
A runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat and coughing are symptoms of a cold. When you have the flu, it is often a sudden onset that can cause a fever, body aches, chills, headaches, a runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat, coughing and fatigue. In some cases, vomiting and diarrhea occur, although these symptoms are more common in children.
An average of 36,000 people die from flu-related illnesses annually, and about 90 percent of the deaths occur in people who are 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC recommends a flu vaccine for most of the population, starting at 6 months old. The federal agency reports that the vaccine is especially important for senior citizens, people with chronic medical conditions — such as asthma, heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes — pregnant women and young children. However, the vaccine should not be given to people who are allergic to eggs because it is grown in eggs.
Antiviral prescription medicine is available for the flu, but it needs to be taken within 48 hours of illness to be effective. Tamiflu, the most common antiviral flu prescription, is given to patients who are 1 and older to reduce symptoms and decrease the duration of the flu.
“With the flu, you need to stay home,” Hamada says. “If you’re having a sudden onset, a high fever, you need to stay home until your fever has definitely gone away because the flu is very contagious.”
More preventative measures
Doctors stress that the best defense against germs is to wash your hands frequently. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used as a substitute if you can’t get to a sink.
“When you wash your hands, you kill 99 percent of germs,” Bonczak says.
Hamada also suggests reassessing your lifestyle to stay healthy and prevent stress.
“Sometimes stress is unavoidable,” Hamada says. “If you can’t avoid the stress, then at least combat it with exercise, healthy eating and drinking plenty of fluids — all the stuff that makes a lot of sense, that your mother used to tell you.”
“And get plenty of rest,” she adds. “If you sleep less than seven hours, you’re going to be at a higher risk of getting a lot of these viruses because the immune system is depressed.” kc