Pick the right cold and flu medicine

a woman who is blowing her nose

At CenterWell Pharmacy®, we understand that when you’re sick with a cold or the flu, you want a medicine that treats your symptoms so you can get back to normal. However, it can be hard to choose the right medicine.

To help, we’ve laid out common cold and flu medications, what symptoms they treat and possible side effects, so you can pick the best medicine.


Medicine containing acetaminophen, such as Tylenol®, is typically used to treat:¹

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throats
  • Fevers
  • Toothaches
  • Colds and flu

More than 600 over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications contain acetaminophen alone or in combination with other medicine, many of which are cold and flu products.²

You should never take 2 medications that contain acetaminophen at the same time. This could lead to severe liver damage.³ Other common side effects include nausea, headaches or insomnia. When used as directed, acetaminophen is safe and effective.

For most adults, the maximum dose of acetaminophen is 4,000 mg per 24-hour period unless instructed and supervised by a healthcare provider.⁴


Like acetaminophen, a medicine containing ibuprofen (such as Advil® and Motrin®) is used to relieve pain and control fever. However, ibuprofen can cause stomach-related side effects, including:⁵

  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Bleeding

Consider taking ibuprofen with food or a glass of milk if you experience stomach issues while on it.⁶ Avoid taking ibuprofen if you take other anti-inflammatory medicine or have kidney problems.


Naproxen, commonly sold under the brand name Aleve®, treats pain and inflammation. However, you shouldn’t take it if you’ve previously had an asthma attack or severe allergic reaction after taking aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

Common stomach-related side effects include indigestion, heartburn, and bleeding. Take naproxen with food to reduce adverse effects.⁷


Medicine containing pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, such as Sudafed®, relieves nasal and sinus congestion. Common side effects of pseudoephedrine/phenylephrine include:⁸

  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble sleeping

Pseudoephedrine/phenylephrine may increase your blood pressure and heart rate. It’s best to avoid taking either if your blood pressure isn’t controlled.

Most pseudoephedrine products are stored behind the pharmacy counter due to strict regulations on this medication.

Nasal decongestant spray

Nasal decongestant sprays containing oxymetazoline are used to temporarily relieve stuffy noses. Though, using nasal decongestant sprays too often or for too long can actually worsen your symptoms.⁹ You may also experience discomfort or irritation in the nose, mouth and throat.¹⁰


Medicine containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl®), cetirizine (Zyrtec®), loratadine (Claritin®) and fexofenadine (Allegra®) relieves:

  • Runny noses
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes

Antihistamines can cause drowsiness, which may help you if you’re having trouble falling asleep while sick.¹¹ The drowsiness is caused by an ingredient called diphenhydramine, used in most OTC sleep-aid or “PM” products. Please avoid taking antihistamines if you need to stay alert, and do not mix this medicine with alcohol as it increases drowsiness.¹²

Shop our OTC store

If your Humana plan has an OTC benefit, you can shop our OTC store to buy your cold and flu medicines. An easy way to see if your plan has an OTC allowance is to check your benefits statement. You can also sign in to your account to see if you have an OTC credit in the top-right corner of the page.

Support when you need it

If you’re concerned about picking the right cold or flu medicine, we recommend talking to your healthcare provider. If you have questions about possible drug interactions, you can also speak to one of our pharmacists: 800-379-0092 (TTY: 711), Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. – 6:30 p.m., Eastern time.


  1. “Acetaminophen,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/acetaminophen.html.
  2. “Don’t Double Up on Acetaminophen,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm336581.htm.
  3. “Don’t Double Up on Acetaminophen.”
  4. “Acetaminophen.”
  5. “Ibuprofen Patient Tips,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/tips/ibuprofen-patient-tips.
  6. “Ibuprofen Patient Tips.”
  7. “Naproxen Patient Tips,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/tips/naproxen-patient-tips.
  8. “Pseudoephedrine Side Effects,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/sfx/pseudoephedrine-side-effects.html.
  9. Oxymetazoline nasal,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/mtm/oxymetazoline-nasal.html.
  10. “Oxymetazoline nasal Side Effects,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/sfx/oxymetazoline-nasal-side-effects.html.
  11. “Antihistamines,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/drug-class/antihistamines.html.
  12. “Benadryl Patient Tips,” Drugs.com, last accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/tips/benadryl-patient-tips.

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor to determine what is right for you.

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