(ARA) - Though it may have started off mild in many parts of the country, cold and flu season is now in full swing and staying healthy this time of year can be a challenge. For those suffering, identifying the type of illness - cold, flu, sinus infection, etc. - and finding the right over-the-counter medications are key in helping to alleviate symptoms.
The common cold and flu are both highly contagious respiratory illnesses but it's often difficult to differentiate between the two. According to experts, a chest cold or head cold can be caused by any one of more than 100 viruses. Symptoms of a cold may vary and can include a runny nose, sore throat, cough, watery eyes and congestion.
Cold symptoms can last for a week, and although there is no cure, there are several over-the-counter medications
that can help provide relief from symptoms. Medications containing pseudoephedrine (located behind the counter in the pharmacy), including many national and store-brand decongestants sold at leading retailers, can be used to address nasal congestion, while pain relievers containing active ingredients such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with other symptoms such as a sore throat, headache or fever.
Influenza, or the flu, is a viral infection affecting the respiratory tract, including the nose, throat and lungs. Influenza is not triggered by the same virus that causes the "stomach flu," which is an infection in the digestive system. Initially, the flu may feel like a common cold. However, the flu tends to come on suddenly and with more severe symptoms, whereas a cold generally develops slowly.
Additional common signs and symptoms of the flu include a fever over 100 F, aching muscles, chills and sweats, headache, dry cough, fatigue, weakness and nasal congestion. The flu and its complications can be deadly. People at higher risk include young children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with weak immune systems or chronic illnesses.
The best defense against influenza is prevention by getting an annual flu vaccination. For the unlucky ones who've contracted the flu this year, there are a few steps to take to combat the symptoms, including getting plenty of rest and taking in a lot of fluids. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu.
To effectively address the achiness associated with the flu, an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help. It's important to remember to never give aspirin to children or teens due to the risk of a rare, but potentially fatal disease called Reye's Syndrome.
"There's a wide selection of over-the-counter treatments available to help ease the symptoms of the common cold or flu," says Dr. Mark Armstrong, a physician with more than 26 years in family practice medicine. "In fact, I recommend many of the 'store-brand' cold and flu medications at leading retailers and pharmacies, such as Tussin cough syrups and effervescent cold relief tablets. These products are regulated by the FDA and use the same active ingredients, but cost significantly less than the brand names."
Allegan, Mich.-based Perrigo
is a pharmaceutical company that manufactures and distributes most of the over-the-counter medications sold under store-brand labels at leading national retailers, club stores, grocers and pharmacies. According to Perrigo, these products are the primary treatments available over-the-counter for cold and flu symptoms:
1. Cough and cold relief: Nite Time and Day Time (brands: NyQuil and DayQuil), Tussin cough syrups (brand: Robitussin), phenylephrine HCl tablets (brand: Sudafed PE), nasal spray (brand: Afrin)
2. Ache and pain relief: acetaminophen (brand: Tylenol), aspirin (brand: Bayer), ibuprofen (brand: Advil)
"If you continue to experience cold or flu symptoms for a prolonged period of time, or your respiratory symptoms have worsened and you have difficulty breathing, I suggest scheduling an appointment with your doctor immediately, so he or she may evaluate you and suggest the best course of treatment for your situation," Armstrong says.