Cold, cough and flu remedies to have on hand

When the weather turns damp and cold, people spend more time indoors. That may make it harder to escape getting sick. Luckily, over-the-counter (OTC) cold, cough and flu remedies can be a big help. You can be prepared by stocking up ahead of time on some of these OTC medications.

Just remember to follow the directions carefully. It’s important not to take more than the recommended amount, says Laura Purdy, M.D., a family medicine doctor based in Nashville, Tennessee. And if symptoms don’t go away or get worse, see a primary care provider, she says.

So what exactly should be in your medicine cabinet? Here are the OTC products Dr. Purdy recommends keeping on hand all season long.

Cold and flu medications

OTC medications for colds and flu won’t cure an illness. But they can help ease symptoms and make you feel more comfortable, says Dr. Purdy.

Many medications have combinations of active ingredients for different symptoms. Read the labels carefully. Then choose the one that targets your specific symptoms, recommends Dr. Purdy.

  • Acetaminophen reduces fever and body aches
  • Decongestants help a stuffy nose
  • Antihistamines ease a runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes
  • Daytime medications ease symptoms without making you sleepy
  • Nighttime options often have an antihistamine that may help you sleep better

People need to be careful if they have high blood pressure or other health issue, says Dr. Purdy. Some remedies contain ibuprofen or pseudoephedrine. Both may raise blood pressure. Look for medications specifically made for people with high blood pressure. Check in with a provider or pharmacist to see what they suggest before buying anything.


For a stuffy nose, go for a nasal decongestant with phenylephrine. “Nasal decongestants narrow the blood vessels in the nasal passages, which reduces swelling and congestion,” explains Dr. Purdy. “That makes breathing easier.” 

Nasal sprays work more quickly, but tablets can give longer relief. Don’t use nasal decongestants for more than a few days though. Otherwise, you can get “rebound congestion,” says Dr. Purdy. That’s when nasal passages get inflamed and irritated from using nasal decongestants for too many days in a row.5

For chest congestion, try a decongestant with guaifenesin. It will thin the mucus so that you can cough it up more easily and clear out your lungs. Drink lots of fluids while taking guaifenesin — it helps loosen mucus even more, Dr. Purdy notes.

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members with an OTC credit can download the UnitedHealthcare® app to check credit balance, use product scanner and more.

How to get over-the-counter products at no additional cost

Menthol rubs

Menthol rubs may sound old-fashioned. But they could ease a hacking cough, stuffy nose or sore muscles, says Dr. Purdy. Use a menthol rub on the chest and throat. Don’t put it directly into nostrils.6

Saline nasal sprays

Saline nasal sprays clear out the nasal passages when they have too much mucus. They also moisturize the inside of the nose when it gets dried out. That’s especially true during the winter, when the air inside is dry from indoor heating. Saline spray is also helpful for allergies 7

Pain relievers

It’s always a good idea to have pain relievers in the medicine cabinet, says Dr. Purdy. Pain relievers can lower a fever. Plus, they may help ease the pain of earaches, headaches and achy joints. Ask your provider about acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin.

But keep in mind that they won’t do anything for cough or congestion.8 So, if taking a cold or flu remedy to ease those symptoms, check the ingredients before taking a separate pain reliever. Cold medications usually contain acetaminophen. And doubling up on acetaminophen can be bad for the liver.9

Get more help with your everyday needs. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with an over-the-counter credit? Shop the OTC catalog for pain relievers, cold remedies, vitamins and more. Sign in to your plan website to learn more and start shopping. 

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Get more help with everyday needs. Have an over-the-counter-credit? Learn how to get everyday health care products in-store or online.