The Best Over-the-Counter Cold and Flu Meds

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Do you have a cold or the flu?

You feel a tickle in your throat, and then a headache coming on. You start to sniffle or sneeze, and suddenly you feel really tired. You know you’re coming down with something — but is it a cold, or do you have the flu? (Think you may have COVID-19? Here are the symptoms.)

“With both conditions your symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose, headache, body aches, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and sometimes diarrhea,” says Dr. Denise Campbell-Scherer, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta. “The main difference is that with the flu, you’ll have a temperature above 37.8°C.” (A normal temperature is about 37°C — it can fluctuate from 36.1 to 37.2 depending on the time of day, menstrual cycle, and physical activity.) Flu symptoms also tend to come on suddenly, are more severe and are at their worst for the first three or four days; after that, it can take up to two weeks before you feel better. A cold can linger anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, although one week is typical.

Viruses are the culprits behind both of these illnesses.

“There are more than 200 viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms,” says Campbell-Scherer. (The most widespread is the rhinovirus.) In contrast, there are just two influenza viruses, A and B, but they continually mutate, requiring the flu vaccine to be updated each year in order to protect against the latest strains.

You can contract cold or flu viruses by inhaling droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or by coming in contact with the other person’s hands or a shared object or surface, and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Once the virus enters your body, it will zero in on the upper respiratory tract (the nose, sinuses, and throat), although influenza can also affect the lungs. Cold viruses are infectious up to two days before symptoms appear and remain infectious until they’re gone. However, influenza is infectious one day before it appears and remains so for up to six days after symptoms develop. (Related: Here’s what you should do at the first sign of a cold.)

According to Campbell-Scherer, the possibility of science finding a cure is unlikely — especially for the common cold, which is just a catch-all phrase for the many different viruses that circulate. Researchers at MIT are working on a drug that kills cells that are infected by all types of viruses, including rhinoviruses and influenza, but it will be at least 10 years before it can even be tested on humans. So, unless you have a pre-existing condition that requires medical attention, “once you get sick with a cold or the flu, you just have to get through it,” says pharmacist Valerie Kalyn, owner of a Shoppers Drug Mart in Calgary. Your best bet is to avoid getting sick.

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