You read the terms on labels during cold and flu season: expectorant, decongestant. Just what do they mean?
Expectorant: Over-the-counter drugs containing guaifenesin help loosen phlegm so it can be expelled.
Decongestant: Over-the-counter medicines containing pseudoephedrine also help get rid of phlegm. Decongestants constrict blood vessels to shrink the swelling of mucus membranes and open air passages. They also help stop postnasal drip, which causes coughing or gagging when mucus drains into the lungs.
Suppressant: Drugs containing a suppressant such as dextromethorphan quiet coughs so you can sleep or speak more comfortably.
Fever reducers: Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are among the most popular. These drugs two main brand names are Motrin and Tylenol also are recommended for muscle and body aches.
Antihistamines: These drugs dry up mucus membranes, though they don't always work for symptoms associated with colds and flu. They're used more by allergy sufferers.
"One of the problems with respiratory illnesses like colds and influenza is the mucus that lines your airways nose, throat, lungs has antibodies in it that help your body fight off infection," said Dr. Robert Brateman, who has a family practice in Novi, Mich. "In the cold weather, when you turn on furnaces and have hot dry air in the room, it dries out that mucus so you don't have as many antibodies in your airways and your immune system doesn't function like it normally does."
That is also why more people seem to catch colds and the flu in the winter than the summer, he said.
It's a good idea for people who live in a dry environment to get a home humidifier and clean the filter regularly to maintain humidity, said Raji Shankar, a pharmacist at a Rite-Aid in Detroit. In addition to helping you feel better, a humidifier also helps moisten dry skin. An added bonus is that it will help keep your furniture around longer by preventing dry rot in fabrics and wood.
Warm fluids are best for treating a cold or the flu, Brateman says. And soup is better than soda.
Gatorade is an excellent rehydrating fluid, Brateman says, even for small children and infants, because it contains water, sugar and minerals knows as electrolytes.
Another important part of treating a cold or the flu is good hygiene. Use disposable tissue instead of handkerchiefs. Wash your hands with antibacterial soaps. And don't share personal items like toothbrushes, hand or bath towels, food or eating utensils.