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Over-the-counter medications for flu symptoms: 3 types

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Pain relieversDecongestantsCough suppressantsHome remediesSummary
Treating influenza — the flu — mainly involves managing symptoms until your body clears the virus. Various over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are available to help relieve symptoms while you recover.
Medically reviewed by Ami Patel PharmD, BCPS
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

While there are prescription medications that can help cure the flu, most people can recover by getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

Getting your annual flu shot can also help reduce the severity of symptoms you could experience.

OTC treatments can help soothe uncomfortable symptoms while your immune system fights the virus. Many different OTC medications are available to help manage different flu symptoms.

Choosing the right OTC medication for you can help relieve your symptoms. Examples include:

Pain relievers    

Yellow surface with several pills scattered across it and a spoon of cough syrup, to depict over-the-counter medication for flu.
Daria Sakharova/Getty Images

Some OTC pain-relieving medications can help you manage certain flu symptoms until the virus passes. This includes:

  • body aches
  • muscle aches
  • fever or chills
  • headaches

Some of these pain relievers include the class of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They are among the most commonly used medications worldwide, with over 30 million people in the United States taking them daily.

The following are available to buy OTC:

Some early stage clinical trials show that naproxen may have antiviral properties and can help stop the virus from multiplying inside your body. More research will help determine if this can help treat the flu.

However, it is important to take NSAIDs with caution. For example, children and young adults should not take aspirin to manage flu symptoms. This is because it may cause them to develop brain and liver damage as symptoms of Reye’s syndrome.

If you have high blood pressure (hypertension), it is important to avoid certain NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. This is because they can interfere with your blood pressure, which can be dangerous if you already have hypertension.

Anyone with a history of an ulcer or a bleed in their stomach should speak with a healthcare professional before using NSAIDs.

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Decongestants

When you have the flu, you may get a “stuffy nose” because your nasal passages are congested. Decongestant medications can help manage this stuffy and blocked sensation.

By reducing the swelling in the blood vessels of the nasal area, decongestants help to open your airways, making it easier to breathe.

These medications are available as nasal sprays, oral tablets, or powders and in combination with other medications like pain relievers.

Examples include:

  • pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • phenylephrine oral (Sudafed PE)
  • phenylephrine nasal spray (Neo-Synephrine)
  • oxymetazoline nasal spray (Afrin)

Decongestant medications do not typically cause any side effects. However, possible mild side effects may include:

  • nasal irritation
  • headaches
  • dry mouth
  • restlessness
  • tremors
  • difficulty sleeping

If you are taking decongestants via your nose, avoid using them for longer than a week. This is because it can worsen any stuffiness you experience in your nose.

If you have hypertension, it is important to avoid decongestant medications, as they can raise your blood pressure even more.

Cough suppressants

If you are also experiencing a cough during the flu, cough suppressant medications can help. For example, dextromethorphan, found in brand-name drugs such as Delsym and Robitussin, is one of the most common medications in OTC flu treatments.

Side effects are very rare, but people often describe abdominal discomfort and drowsiness or dizziness when they occur.

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Home remedies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is important to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever disappears. This is to keep others safe and help prevent the transmission of the flu to more vulnerable people.

If you are experiencing the flu, it is also important to make sure you stay hydrated. This is because the flu can cause you to lose more fluids than usual. Drinking plenty of fluids will help keep your immune system functioning well.

If you have a fever, it can be helpful to try to bring it down. There are several ways you can do this at home and without medication, such as:

  • placing a cool compress on the forehead
  • relaxing in a warm bath to regulate your temperature
  • washing your arms in cool water

It can also be helpful to gargle salt water if you have a sore throat.

Summary

Typically, treatment for the flu involves getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids until the virus passes.

Until then, OTC medications such as pain relievers and cough suppressants can help to make you more comfortable while your immune system works to recover.

You can help soothe symptoms of a fever and sore throat at home in several ways, such as taking a warm bath and gargling salt water.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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