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8 Medicine Cabinet Essentials for Cold and Flu Season

Keep these items on hand at home to identify and help treat troubling symptoms

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When the temperature begins to drop, respiratory illnesses like cold and flu start to rise. So now is the time of year to take inventory of what’s in your medicine cabinet and stock up on the essentials to avoid any last-minute trips to the store if you get sick.

One thing to keep in mind: While a number of over-the-counter remedies can bring relief from the bothersome symptoms that accompany seasonal illnesses, it’s important to touch base with your health care provider when you start to feel sick, says Paul O’Rourke, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. If it is the flu — and a simple test at the doctor’s office can tell — a prescription antiviral medication can help ease symptoms and prevent the illness from getting worse. “But it does need to be started pretty soon with the onset of symptoms,” O’Rourke says. The same goes for COVID-19 antiviral treatments, if you test positive for a coronavirus infection.

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Here are eight indispensable items to stock in the medicine cabinet to prepare for cold and flu season.

1. Thermometer ​

First on O’Rourke’s list of cold-and-flu-season essentials is a working thermometer — whether it’s one that goes in the mouth or hovers over the forehead. “It’s important to have one around so that you can objectively assess if you do have a fever, and to provide that information to your physician if you are sick, because that can help with managing your symptoms,” he adds.

A temperature higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit is considered “a true fever” and warrants a call to your doctor, O’Rourke says.  

2. Pulse oximeter

Emergency warning signs of flu

If you experience the following symptoms, seek medical care right away.

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Persistent dizziness, confusion, inability to wake up
  • Seizures
  • Not urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness or unsteadiness
  • Fever or cough that improves but then returns or worsens
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Another helpful tool to have on hand, especially with COVID-19 still circulating, is a pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygen levels. People who develop serious complications from the flu and COVID can experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. So if you start having breathing issues or upper respiratory symptoms, “you would be able to assess the oxygen levels in your blood and be able to report that to your physician or medical team,” O’Rourke explains.

The more familiar pulse oximeters attach to a finger, but some home models are designed to be used on the ears, nose or forehead.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has information on how to take a reading at home and interpret the results. One thing to know: Emerging research suggests that pulse oximeters may be less accurate in individuals with darker skin pigmentation. The FDA says that people with COVID who are monitoring their symptoms at home “should pay attention to all signs and symptoms of their condition and communicate any concerns to their health care provider” while the agency continues to look into the issue.

3. A COVID-19 test  

The most common symptoms of cold, flu and COVID — even RSV (or respiratory syncytial virus) — overlap, making it difficult to pin down a diagnosis. That’s why having a rapid at-home COVID test stashed away can be especially helpful. You can find these over-the-counter tests at pharmacies around the country. Medicare covers up to eight COVID tests each month for beneficiaries, and many private insurers are reimbursing enrollees. People without insurance can find free tests at some community health centers.

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Knowing whether you’re positive for COVID can impact the treatment course of your illness — especially if you are at higher risk for a more severe case, explains Robert Weber, administrator for pharmacy services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and assistant dean for medical center affairs at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy. For example, if you are 50 and older or have certain health conditions and test positive for COVID, your doctor may recommend a prescription antiviral pill to help ease the severity of your symptoms. The results will also tell you whether you need to isolate from others so that you don’t pass on the virus.

4. Pain relievers  

Colds, the flu and other seasonal illnesses can come with headaches and muscle aches, which in many cases over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate. They also have the added benefit of temporarily reducing fevers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol is the brand name) is generally recommended for older adults, since nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — which include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) — can raise bleeding risks in the gastrointestinal tract, a risk that increases with age.

NSAIDs can also damage the kidneys and raise blood pressure, especially if used consistently, says Ashley Garling, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Pharmacy. “If you have any ulcers or history of ulcers or are on blood thinners, then I would avoid them,” Garling adds.  

However, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the best option for you, since acetaminophen is not risk-free — especially for people with liver issues. What’s more, acetaminophen tends to hide in several combination medicines that are sold to treat cold and flu symptoms, like NyQuil and DayQuil, so be sure to read the label to avoid unintentionally double dosing. Taking too much can cause serious liver damage.

“[It’s important to] make sure that you’re taking a minimum number of over-the-counter medicines that help with your symptoms, and definitely reporting to your physician or medical team what over-the-counter medicines you’re taking, so they can provide you advice and address with you if they have any concerns that maybe you’re taking too much of one thing,” O’Rourke says.

5. Sore throat soothers

Cough drops can settle a sore throat or nagging cough, so having a bag or two on hand isn’t a bad idea. That said, you don’t want to overdo it on the lozenges, especially if you are diabetic, since most contain sugar, Garling notes. (There are plenty of sugar-free options out there if you are watching your sugar intake.) Taking too many can also lead to a stomachache, “but generally they’re pretty safe and they can be very soothing,” she adds.

Also, be cautious about using anything that numbs the back of the throat, which can make it difficult to swallow, Weber says. And don’t forget about some of the more obvious remedies: A cup of hot tea or a glass of ice-cold water can bring relief to an irritated throat.

Do’s and don’ts for cold and flu season

  • Do clean out your medicine cabinet and get rid of any old or unused drugs. Check expiration dates — anything that’s beyond its date can lose effectiveness, according to the Food and Drug Administration. “If there are things that are expired, get rid of those medicines and replace them with new medicines that will be more effective and safe,” O’Rourke says.
  • Don’t reach for an old prescription to treat a new illness. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them, for example, can contribute to antibiotic resistance and cause a number of side effects. Pain medications like Percocet contain acetaminophen, and if you’re taking that already as a fever reducer or pain reliever, you could be getting too much. “It’s just really a good idea not to take any prescription medicine unless you talk to your doctor,” Weber says.
  • Do make sure you stay on top of refills for your other prescription medications so you don’t have to venture out and refill routine medicines when you are ill. “It’s always appropriate to ensure that you have an adequate supply of the prescription medications for your chronic conditions, because I wouldn’t want you feeling even worse if there’s a medicine that you need and you’ve run out of it and you’re feeling too ill to go out and get it,” O’Rourke says.  

6. Cough calmers   

Here’s another area where you have to pay attention, since many cough medicines contain more than one ingredient — including some that older adults should avoid, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), which can have a sedating effect and increase the risk of falls. Diphenhydramine has also been linked in studies to increased dementia risks. Another thing to be on the lookout for: packages with “DM” on the label, which stands for dextromethorphan, which can change your blood pressure and suppress your respiratory system, Garling says. “Really using only one ingredient for the one thing that’s bothering you the most is typically our recommendation,” she adds.

Weber suggests guaifenesin (Mucinex) to help thin and clear mucus-causing coughs. Be sure to drink plenty of water while taking it to help the process along, he says. Some antihistamines, like cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin), can also help calm a dry, hacking cough from postnasal drip and are safer than other options, Garling adds.

7. Nasal sprays

A saline nasal spray can help relieve nasal congestion brought on by a cold. If you’re considering another over-the-counter nasal spray, Weber recommends checking with the pharmacist first to make sure it won’t affect your blood pressure or worsen any other health conditions.

8. Humidifier

Another cold weather must: a mini humidifier, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can ease a sore throat and cough brought on by common cold viruses. Steaming up the bathroom with a hot shower will also do the trick in a pinch. 

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Oct. 28, 2021, has been updated with new information.

Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.

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