Maybe you're so stuffed up you can barely breathe. Or you have a cough that keeps you (and the rest of the household) up all night. Or your aches and fever guarantee this is the flu, not a cold, keeping you huddled miserably under the covers. Whatever your wretched symptoms, likely you can find relief in your medicine cabinet — or maybe elsewhere in your home.
Here's a look at what to take for each of the symptoms, and remember: Always read the label first. There's no reason to attack with a barrage of multi-symptom heavy artillery; instead, treat only the symptoms you have. That way, you won't risk over-medicating yourself and you'll let the medicines and natural remedies do their jobs.
When your nose is stuffed, trying to breathe takes all your energy. But you also dread going to bed because you know you won't be able to sleep. And you can't smell or taste anything you eat. That's when it may be time to try some decongestants. You can choose between decongestant pills and decongestant sprays. Sprays work faster, says WebMD, but you shouldn't use them for more than three days. That's when you can get a rebound effect and your congestion can get worse. Pills work too, but ask your doctor before taking them if you have high blood pressure or heart disease. Oral decongestants may raise your blood pressure.
If you want a more natural way to combat your clogged nose, try saline nasal spray. It can help relieve congestion without side effects. Staying hydrated — especially by sipping warm beverages — also helps loosen congestion, reports the Mayo Clinic. Steam from a warm shower or a humidifier also can ease stuffiness. If you use a humidifier, just be sure to change the water daily and clean it according to directions.
A 2018 study published in the journal BMJ, however, found no evidence that heated humidifed air had any effect on congestion. The study looked at published reviews on cold treatments, including decongestants, antihistamines and more natural remedies. But just because there isn't a lot of research to back up the warm, wet air, doesn't mean it can't give relief.
The Mayo Clinic also suggests that drinking lots of water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey helps loosen congestion.
A cough is your body's way of trying to clear out all the irritants that are keeping you from breathing. And boy, does your body take this job seriously. The hacking that comes with a cold can often seem to linger forever. Over-the-counter cough medicine with dextromethorphan and/or guaifenesin may help calm a cough. But you may also get the same relief from natural cough remedies. Try sucking on cough lozenges or hard candy, sipping warm tea with honey, taking a hot shower or using a humidifier, and even trying licorice.
Runny nose and sneezing
When you have allergies, your body makes chemicals called histamines and they create symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Most experts say histamines aren't responsible for similar symptoms when you have a cold, says WebMD, but antihistamine drugs can still sometimes provide relief. Antihistamines can make you drowsy and can really dry out your nose, mouth and eyes. Worst case: Stock up on lotion-added tissues.
Feeling like you've been hit by a truck is one of the flu's signature symptoms. You can combat body aches with over-the-counter pain relievers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another option, but keep in mind that too much can cause liver damage, so always stick with the recommended dosage or less. If you're taking combination products that fight many symptoms, make sure you're not doubling up on the acetaminophen. Aspirin is another option, but shouldn't be given to children under 18 due to the increased risk of a dangerous (but rare) disease called Reye's syndrome, says WebMD.
The same pain relievers you take for body aches may also help with a sore throat. You may also want to try sore throat home remedies like hot tea with honey, using a humidifier, or gargling with salt water. Sucking on sugar-free medicated drops or using medicated throat sprays may also help. If your sore throat lasts for more than a few days or is incredibly painful, it's a good idea to see your doctor. He or she can rule out a bacterial infection or strep throat.
Rest and fluids are the best treatment for a fever. But if you're really uncomfortable, you can take a pain reliever. Call your doctor if your fever doesn't drop after taking medicine, stays around 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or lasts longer than three days, suggests the Mayo Clinic.
Of course, prevention is the best medicine. Wash your hands a lot, keep them away from your nose and mouth, and stay away from germy people. And don't forget to get a flu shot every year. And just in case, make sure to keep your medicine cabinet well stocked.
Editor's note: This story was originally written December 2015 and has been updated with new information.