The flu season is in full swing across America although thankfully, influenza activity is mild in most states. If you click on this interactive US map you can see where your state fairs with ongoing influenza (hit “play” and you’ll see all weeks reported this season).
It’s certainly NOT too late for your family to get a flu shot (or nasal spray) since that’s the best way to protect against severe complications from influenza. There is no cure for influenza (antibiotics don’t treat the virus), but there are over-the-counter (OTC) products that do help ease symptoms & side effects from viruses (including influenza) that cause cold symptoms. Some doctors are calling for a “symptomatic prescription pad” that would first suggest simple aids like humidifiers, drinking fluids, and OTC products before antibiotic use. No sense in using antibiotics if the infection you or your child has is from a virus like influenza or one of hundreds that cause the “common cold.”
It’s awful when our children are sick, especially when multiple symptoms like congestion, fever, body aches, sore throat or cough interfere with sleep. Salt in the wound for parents everywhere. Sleep disruption is normal during illness, especially cough and colds, and especially with infants and toddlers who are unaccustomed to moving mucus around while they sleep. So parents often turn to multi-symptom OTC products out of desperation! Sometimes these medicines really reduce symptoms that can make the whole family suffer but there are cautions we have to take.
First off, cough and cold medicines are not typically recommended in children under age 4 to 6 years of age.
In addition, we have to use our smarts with medicines that contain more than 1 ingredient that treat different symptoms. Being aware of the ingredients in the OTC product you’re using is very important because you don’t want to take another product that includes the same ingredients as another (doubling-up). This can happen if you give your child acetaminophen, for example, for fever and then give a cough and cold medicine with that same ingredient.
Additionally, if you are taking prescription medicines, know that OTC medicines can interact with those medicines so check with your physician if you or your child is on daily medicines. There are 4 main OTC treatments that can help treat flu symptoms. You can read more detailed information on cough/cold/flu symptoms and ingredients in most OTC products.
4 OTC Treatments For Battling “Flu” Symptoms:
- Mucus Thinners: sometimes flu viruses trigger the body to produce a large amount of thick mucus. This mucus can be especially pesky at night pooling in the back of the throat and triggering more cough. If you feel that you are having trouble coughing out the mucus, it’s because sometimes it’s thicker. Medications with the active ingredient “guaifenesin” can be helpful and sometimes thin the mucus to make it easier to clear.
- Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers: ibuprofen and acetaminophen can reduce fevers, body and headaches associated with the flu. No question this is typically the medicine category that will “perk” your child up during a virus that causes a fever.
- Cough Medicine: cough suppressants are helpful if your cough is keeping you awake at night, or if your chest or belly are becoming uncomfortably sore from coughing. Dextromethorphan is the most common active ingredient in cough medication. Since cough medicine isn’t safe for children under age 6, I recommend honey sticks to my patients over age 1 year. Research shows honey can help with productive nighttime coughing. Use a teaspoon in some warm lemon water or give it to your child directly.
- Decongestants: if your nose is stuffed and making it difficult for you to breathe, decongestants help to reduce the swelling if your membranes in your nose and open the nasal airway slightly.
4 OTC Tips When You’re Sick:
- Always read the Drug Facts label before administering an OTC medicine
- Never give oral cough/cold medicines to kids under the age of 4 or 6 years of age — no great data they do any good unfortunately!
- Prevention is key: wash your hands, cough into your elbow, stay home when you are sick and GET those flu vaccines (nasal flu spray for children over age 2 years).
- It’s important to see a doctor if you have suspected influenza on day 1 or 2, especially if you are considered high-risk — there are anti-viral medicines that we can use if started within the first few days.
Groups Considered High-Risk:
- Children under 2 years of age (they are more likely to be hospitalized if under age 2 and also more likely to have severe illness if under age 2). Immunize all the family to protect them!
- Adults over 65
- Pregnant women
- Anyone with complicated/severe illness — things like diabetes, underlying immune challenges, neurologic conditions or any lung problems (asthma).
This post was written in partnership with KnowYourOTCs.org. In exchange for our ongoing partnership helping families understand how to use OTC (over-the-counter) meds safely they have made a contribution to Digital Health at Seattle Children’s for our work in innovation. I adore the OTC Safety tagline, “Treat yourself and your family with care all year long.” Follow @KnowYourOTCs #KnowYourOTCs for more info on health and wellness.