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OTCs vs. the common cold
By Dr. Peter Gott | Columnist
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Published: 11/23/2009 12:04 AM

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Q. Boy, do I get confused. I feel as though I am coming down with a cold. When I went to my local drug store to get something to treat myself with, I found countless shelves filled with lozenges, antihistamines, stuff for a sore throat, congestion, runny nose, aches, pains, fever and every other symptom under the sun. I was so confused that I came home with a new bottle of shampoo and some tissues. Where do I begin so I can make the right decision?

A. You're not the first person to be confused by the plethora of treatments available for almost any malady. Let's see if we can make some sense of it all.

A rule of thumb is to keep things as simple as possible. Most commercial cough suppressants contain an ingredient called dextromethorphan, which will not help with coughs caused by smoking, asthma or emphysema. The component should not be taken in conjunction with some medications, and shouldn't be used by pregnant women or those who may become pregnant during treatment because of possible risk to an unborn child. If you have a cough, consider tea with honey or lozenges that don't contain medication as alternatives.

A sore throat can be treated with a warm saltwater gargle several times a day until the symptoms subside.

Nasal congestion and allergies can be treated with the assistance of a mild saltwater cleansing solution for the nose, which should ease congestion. A neti pot for the rinse can be purchased at your local pharmacy.

Fever can be treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

A headache can be quelled with aromatherapy. Simply wet a washcloth or small towel. Place it in the microwave for about 15 seconds to warm. Remove, roll the towel and dot each side with lavender oil. Sit back in a comfortable chair and place the cloth over your forehead or around your neck. Lavender can be purchased in pharmacies and health food stores.

Now, on to your local pharmacy. Read labels for more information. Be sure to check that your choice will not interact with any other medications or medical conditions you may have. When all else fails, read the front of the container and select the one that best describes your symptoms. Headaches, muscle pain and fever respond to acetaminophen or ibuprofen; nasal congestion to sprays or antihistamine pills; a sore throat to maximum-strength lozenges; and allergies to loratadine.

Be sure to include additional fluids in your diet and get plenty of rest if you have any symptoms of cold or flu. As I've said repeatedly, if you treat a cold, it will take you a week to recover. If you let it run its course, it will take seven days. If you continue to find yourself confused about what to take or not take, speak with the pharmacist. If you have any chronic medical condition or take medication, your primary-care physician can help you decide which over-the-counter treatment is best for you.

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