Cough, Cold and Flu

What is it?

Colds and the flu are both caused by contagious viruses.

Who is affected?

Colds are the most common reason for missed work. With the average adult contracting an estimated two to four colds every year, it is beneficial to take steps to reduce your risk1.

What are the symptoms?

Cold symptoms usually clear up within about a week and include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough
  • Laryngitis
  • Fever

Flu symptoms mimic those of a typical cold with the additional symptoms of chills, aches and pain. They tend to last for one to two weeks.

What can I do to prevent and treat it?

The best way to prevent contracting a cold or flu is to:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold or the flu
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth
  • Get a flu shot (effective only against the flu virus)

There are several types of OTC medications to help treat colds, coughs and the flu:

  • Decongestants - clears stuffy noses
  • Cough Suppressants - suppresses coughs
  • Expectorants – loosens phlegm to make coughs more productive
  • Lozenges – soothes sore throats

Important additional information

  • Colds and the flu are caused by viral infections
  • Antibiotics are powerless against these viral infections. Some antiviral medications may shorten a bout of the flu by one to one and a half days, but you may still need OTC medication to relieve your symptoms.
  • If you do contract a cold or flu2:
    • Ask your doctor for ways to help relieve your symptoms. Don't pressure him or her into prescribing an antibiotic if you don't have a bacterial infection.
    • Drink plenty of "healthy" liquids, such as water or juice.
    • Be sure to get adequate rest.
    • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and tobacco smoke.
    • Children and teenagers with a cold or the flu should not receive salicylates (aspirin) due to the resulting increased risk of developing Reye syndrome.
  • Sinusitis can be triggered by a cold. If a cold persists for more than 10 -14 days, it could be a sinus infection. Call your health care provider if your symptoms are severe or appear to be getting worse instead of better. It may be a sign of a bacterial infection.

The following are examples of OTC medications that can be used to treat the symptoms of cold, cough or flu:

Symptom relief Helpful medications Active ingredients* to look for in generic and name brand OTC products
Loosen and relieve chest congestion Expectorant Guaifenesin
Example: Robitussin®
Control cough Cough Suppressant Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin
Example: Robitussin® DM
Clear nasal stuffiness Decongestant Brompheniramine, Pseudoephedrine
Example: Dimetapp® Elixir
Decongestant and Pain Reliever Pseudoephedrine, Ibuprofen
Example: Advil® Cold & Sinus
Relieve itchy, watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing Antihistamine Brompheniramine, Pseudoephedrine
Example: Dimetapp® Elixir
Relieve sore throat Pain reliever Ibuprofen
Example: Advil®

Benzocaine, Menthol
Example: Cepacol®

Relieve headache Pain reliever Ibuprofen
Example: Advil®

Decongestant and Pain Reliever Pseudoephedrine, Ibuprofen
Example: Advil® Cold & Sinus


* Active ingredients: ingredients in a medication that produce a therapeutic response


1Wyeth, "Conquer Your Cold and Cough," OTC Self-Care Connection

2Wyeth, Inc., "The Facts about Cold & Flu", Active Blue, Fall 2002


Note: This information is intended to provide readers with health information. The information provided is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider. Brand names included on this Web page are provided for examples only. Their inclusion does not mean that they are endorsed by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.