Health Info

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Cold and Flu Self Care

female with the flu

Cold, Flu and Other Viral Illnesses

For the majority of respiratory illness, self-treatment of the symptoms is all that is required.

General Tips for Feeling Better

Treating Your Symptoms

A number of over-the-counter medications are available to treat common symptoms.

Fever, Headache, Muscle Aches, Fatigue

You can use an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen (generic Motrin or Advil) or naproxen (generic Aleve). The major side effect of NSAIDs is irritation of the stomach, occasionally leading to gastrointestinal ulceration and bleeding. Stop the medication if you have stomach upset or pain. Consider taking acetaminophen (Tylenol), instead, for fever and pain if you have stomach upset.

CAUTION: Aspirin may cause Reyes Syndrome; it is not recommended for college students.


Decongestants: The only effective oral decongestant currently available is pseudoephedrine. You must ask the pharmacist for this medication (regulated because of illegal use to make methamphetamine), although no prescription is required. Decongestants purchased off the shelf contain phenylephrine and are much less effective. Oral decongestants may produce rapid heart rate, blood pressure elevation, nervous stimulation, and restlessness which may interfere with sleep. An alternative to the oral medication is a decongestant nose spray oxymetazoline hydrochloride (generic Afrin). This can rapidly relieve nasal obstruction. When the decongestant effect of the drug wears off, nasal obstruction rapidly returns.

Therefore, this can be very effective, but limit use to 3 days (if used twice daily) or 5-6 nights (if only used at bedtime). Overuse by just a few days can result in “rebound” obstruction and mucosal damage.

Coughing and Sneezing

Antihistamines: The most effective antihistamines are first generation, although they tend to cause drowsiness. Examples of first generation antihistamines are brompheniramine (generic for DimeTapp), chlorpheniramine (generic for Chlor-Trimeton and Singlet), diphenhydramine (generic for Benadryl), and doxylamine (generic for NyQuil and Alka-Seltzer Plus Night-Time Cold Medicine). The newer (non-sedating) antihistamines do not appear to have the same degree of effectiveness for treating colds. Examples are loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra and certirizine (Zyrtec).

Cough Suppressants and Expectorants: Cough suppressants are natural narcotics, like codeine, and synthetic narcotics, like dextromethorphan (DM). They act on the brain to depress the cough reflex center. Their effectiveness in patients with chronic cough has been demonstrated in controlled studies but there is little published information on their effectiveness in coughs associated with colds. Cough suppressants can produce gastrointestinal discomfort but otherwise have few side effects. In normal healthy people with good cough reflexes, cough suppressants are safe.

PLEASE NOTE: Drug interactions may occur with DM and certain anti-depressants. If you are on an antidepressant, discuss this with your provider.

Sore Throat

Keeping a throat lozenge, cough drop, or hard candy in your mouth will stimulate your saliva and help soothe your throat.

Various nasal saline rinse kits are available commercially or you can make your own saline by mixing ½ teaspoon of salt and 8 ounces of warm water in a clean container. For the nasal congestioin: Place the above mixture in a reusable sinus rinse bottle or draw up into a nasal bulb syringe. The most convenient way to perform a sinus rinse is in the shower or over a sink. For sore throat: Swish and spit.

Before taking any medication:

When Do I Need to Be Seen by a Clinician?

If you think you have the flu and you are pregnant or have a chronic medical condition (such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, or heart disease), or are immune-compromised, you need to speak with a health care provider and will probably need to be seen.

If you have the flu or viral illness and any of the following symptoms or conditions you need to seek medical evaluation as soon as possible.

Making an Appointment

There are several ways to access clinical care at UHS:


Student Health Center | 814.865.6556 | Contact University Health Services