The Best Over-the-Counter Flu Medicines

Look for a few simple, inexpensive ingredients

Most cases of the flu do not require visits to the emergency room or even your local doctor. But there are a few OTC flu medicines that can help treat the most common symptoms: fever, headache, sore throat, pain and a cough.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money, and these products can be used for other illnesses, too. These are basic medicines that everyone should have in their medicine cabinet for emergencies.

Choose the right medication for the symptom

Fever reducers

  • Aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen treat fevers. A fever is simply a sign of the body’s defense mechanism in action.
  • Do not give aspirin to infants and/or toddlers.

Pain relievers for headache, sore throat or muscle pain

  • Aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen all treat pain, as well as fever.
  • Acetaminophen works well for headaches, and doesn’t cause stomach discomfort like ibuprofen or aspirin can. 
  • Ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin work best for sore throats or muscle pain.

Cough suppressants

  • Dextromethorphan is the main ingredient in cough suppressants. It works by decreasing the feeling that you need to cough. Be careful as it can cause slight drowsiness, so it’s best to take it before bedtime.

Avoid these ingredients when treating the flu

Flu is a lung virus. If you have a stuffy, runny nose and a sinus headache, it’s more likely a cold or allergy.

You probably won’t need products with:

  • Decongestants, such as phenylephrine, oxymetazoline, or pseudoephedrine
  • Antihistamines (for allergies), such as diphenhydramine, fexofenadine, loratadine, cetirizine or chlorpheniramine
  • Expectorants, cough syrups that work by thinning and loosening the mucus in your airway (a flu cough is usually dry, not goopy); Guaifenesin is the most common expectorant.

Always read the labels, directions provided and consult your physician before taking any medication.

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Store Brand vs. Name Brand Medicine

Active Ingredients: They are the same!

Brand names and store brands contain the exact same active ingredient. They have the same dosage, strength, safety and performance. In fact, brand name manufacturers make about half of all generic drugs. 

The FDA regulates all over-the-counter drugs.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates the approval, manufacture and sale of all over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Store brands must go through the same FDA approval process as brand names. They must meet the same safety and effectiveness standards. The FDA requires manufacturing facilities to meet their standards regardless of whether they make store brands or brand names. The FDA even regulates labeling so consumers can use these drugs without the intervention of a healthcare provider. 

Store brands will save you money!

Store brands cost about half the price of brand names. This is mostly due to lower marketing budgets. In a University of Chicago study, most consumers chose store brands across a variety of healthcare categories. The same study found most doctors and pharmacists rely on store brands themselves. 

Next time you find yourself looking in the OTC medicine aisle, grab a store brand and save some money. If you have any confusion or questions, simply ask your pharmacist.

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