Single-Symptom Cold and Flu Medications

There are so many medications available to treat cold and flu symptoms. Figuring out which one is right for you can be confusing. You don't want to take a medicine that treats symptoms you don't have but taking just one pill is a lot easier than taking three or four.

Here, we will focus on medications that only treat one symptom. These are best for those times when you have symptoms that are not covered by multi symptom medications or when those medications treat more symptoms than what you have. If in doubt, it is always better to take a few different single symptom medications to treat only the symptoms you have. 


Johnson & Johnson's Sudafed. Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty Images

Sudafed and Sudafed PE are both decongestants. They contain pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) that help to release congestion. These medications are also available in generic form at most drugstores. Federal laws now require that Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) be sold behind the counter because it can be used to produce methamphetamines. It is still available without a prescription, you just have to ask the pharmacist and sign for it. Sudafed PE (phenylephrine) is available in the cold medication aisle. 

Most people get better results from pseudoephedrine but it can also cause unpleasant side effects like an increased heart rate and difficulty sleeping. If you have any chronic medical conditions - especially one that involves your heart - talk to your health care provider before taking a decongestant. 

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Kelly Rowland for Claritin. Paul Zimmerman/WireImage/Getty Images

Antihistamines can be used for symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and itching. There are many different formulas available, including Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (loratidine), Zyrtec (ceterizine), and Allegra (fexofenadine). Antihistamines are very useful for treating allergy symptoms and may also be used when you have a cold or the flu. Benadryl and Zyrtec may cause drowsiness, while Claritin and Allegra do not. It may take trying a few different formulas before you find the one that works the best for you. 

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Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers

Acetaminophen or Tylenol
Acetaminophen tablets. David Sucsy/Getty Images

Fevers and aches and pains often go along with the cold and flu. You could have a headache, sore throat, muscle pain or just general aches all over your body.

There are several types of pain relievers and fever reducers available over the counter. They work differently and may cause different side effects. Acetaminophen is safe for children as young as 2 months old and ibuprofen can be used in kids as young as 6 months. However, aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 18 years because it has been linked to a potentially fatal reaction called Reye's syndrome

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Cough Medications

Boy taking medicine
Is that cough medicine really safe?. Imgorthand/E+/Getty Images

There are two types of over the counter cough medications available - expectorants and suppressants. One type (expectorants) helps loosen the mucus so you can cough it out more effectively. Suppressants help calm the cough reflex so you can rest. Learn when you should use one or the other.

Cough suppressants should not be used all the time because coughing is often necessary to bring mucus out of the lungs that can cause more serious infections. Expectorants are often a better option if you are coughing.

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Natural Cold and Flu Remedies

Vitamin C - what can it do for you?. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Many people prefer natural or herbal remedies to treat the cold and flu. From vitamin C to echinacea and elderberry, we break down what the science shows on how effective these natural and herbal remedies might be for your cold and flu symptoms. There are many choices for natural and herbal treatment and prevention of the cold and flu, but not all of them have been proven to work.

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