What are the best over-the-counter flu remedies?

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Before you buy a bunch of pricey over-the-counter cold and flu medications, here’s what doctors recommend.

Dr. Alison Heffernan with Montgomery Pediatrics says she’s seeing a lot of patients with the flu right now.

“Fever, congestion, cough, sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms as well, so diarrhea, vomiting, and most all of them have body aches as well," she said.

Heffernan says your best defense against the flu is still the flu vaccine. And she recommends you get a flu shot now if you haven’t already.

“Flu season stretches from September to April, a lot of people don’t realize that, so it’s definitely not too late," she said.

While people who get the flu shot can still get sick the vaccine could help you avoid more serious complications. Heffernan says if you think you or your kids may have the flu, getting to the doctor’s office quickly can help.

“Typically we’d like to see them in the first 48 hours if we suspect flu, because that’s going to be the most beneficial time for them to receive Tamiflu,” she said.

Tamiflu is an antiviral that can help shorten the duration of the flu. It’s especially important patients with certain health conditions get treatment.

“Asthma, diabetes, any kind of renal disorders, any kind of underlying issue that can cause complications," said Heffernan.

But if it’s been a couple days and you’re otherwise healthy, most people can weather the flu at home with plenty of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications for comfort. For fever, aches and pains in both children and adults doctors recommend acetaminophen, found in medications like Tylenol, or ibuprofen, found in drugs like Advil or Motrin. But Heffernan says other cold medications like decongestants and cough syrups are not a good idea for young children.

“We don’t recommend that any kids under six, definitely, get any cold medication. Or, really, kids under 12," she said.

Adults with the flu often reach for the box of over-the-counter meds that looks strongest, like those combination meds marked “Severe cold and flu” -- but doctors warn those medications can be dangerous if you aren’t careful. That’s because people don’t realize they contain several different active ingredients, which can lead to doubling up.

One example: Say you’re taking Tylenol for a headache, but you also want to quiet a bad cough, so you can sleep. So you reach for a bottle of one of those nighttime cough syrups. But check the label and you’ll see it also contains Tylenol. And overdosing on that could actually lead to liver damage. A Pittsburgh medical research found that accidental Tylenol overdoses jump 24 percent during flu season -- so it’s something to watch out for.

“I do think it’s better to treat individual symptoms and take individual medication, rather than take a medication where you may not need one of those other medications. And certainly there are side effects that some of those other medications can have as well,” said Heffernan.

The safest thing, clearly, is to check with your doctor if you have any questions about your symptoms, or which medications you should be taking! And doctors say don’t let the pressures of work or school rush you back too soon if you’ve been down with the flu.

“Kids need to be fever free, off of meds like Tylenol or Motrin, for at least 24 hours before you even think of sending them back," said Heffernan.

So your doctor is always your best resource for advice about medications. There’s also a website called “Iodine” where you can click on common symptoms and get a list of over-the-counter medications that could help, as well as see some of those important interaction warnings.

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