There are a number of over-the-counter medicines that might help relieve cold and flu symptoms. These include:
Paracetamol for pain and fever
Read and follow the directions on the label carefully. If you are not sure check with your doctor or pharmacist.
Ibuprofen for pain and fever
Ibuprofen can be given for pain and symptoms of fever in adults and children of 3 months and over, according to their weight. Make sure you’ve got the right strength for your child’s age and weight as overdosing can be dangerous. Read and follow the directions on the label carefully. If you are not sure check with your doctor or pharmacist. Avoid ibuprofen if your child has asthma, unless advised by your doctor.
Decongestants and saline nasal sprays or drops to relieve a blocked nose
Nasal decongestants and saline (salt water) nasal sprays can help to relieve a blocked nose, but should not be used for more than 4 or 5 days in a row. Medicated nasal decongestants must not be used in babies younger than 6 months. Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline must not be used in children younger than 6 years. Use salt water (saline) nasal sprays or drops instead of a nasal decongestant for these children. Before using a decongestant, check with your doctor or pharmacist if it is safe for you or your child.
Combination ‘cough and cold’ medicines
Cough and cold medicines are often used for symptom relief however it’s important to know there is not enough evidence showing they work well, particularly in children. Cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under 6. You should ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving cough and cold medicines to children aged 6-11 years. Cough and cold medicines often contain paracetamol, so it is important to check the label to avoid ‘doubling up’ and taking other medicines that also contain paracetamol.
Some people find vitamins (for example vitamin C), mineral supplements (for example zinc) or herbal medicines (for example echinacea) helpful. However, there is not enough evidence to show they are effective in helping to treat or prevent colds and flu.
If you are likely to suffer complications from the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. These medicines won’t cure the flu, but if they are taken within 48 hours of symptoms they can help to:
- reduce the length of time you are ill by around 1 day
- relieve some of the symptoms
- reduce the potential for serious complications.
They do this by stopping the virus from multiplying in your body. Talk to your doctor to see if antiviral medications are right for you.
Antibiotics won’t cure a cold or flu. Antibiotics won’t help the symptoms of a cold or flu or stop them from spreading to other people. This is because they are viral infections and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections.
Some people occasionally can get a bacterial infection as a complication of a cold or flu. This kind of infection is not common and most people will get better by themselves without antibiotics. If you are at more risk of complications or may get very sick, then your doctor may give you antibiotics. Talk to your doctor to see if antibiotics are right for you.
For advice on medicines call the NPS MedicineWise information line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424).
Learn about some other things you can do to relieve cold or flu symptoms.
See a doctor if you are concerned about your symptoms. If you would like to speak to a registered nurse, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your cold or flu, why not use healthdirect's online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it's self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: September 2016