Consider this: More than 200 viruses cause the common cold, and hundreds of flu strains emerge each year.

And those germs are everywhere. A sick person’s cough or sneeze has millions of viral particles. A cough can expel droplets at speeds of about 50 mph, a sneeze at more than 100 mph, sending them 6 feet or farther.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the average American adult catches two to three colds a year and up to 20 percent of us get the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Special Report: How to Treat a Cold or the Flu

Yet there’s still no cure for either—which means the best we can hope for is relief. And in that quest for something—anything—to ease our aches and fevers, coughs and stuffy noses, we’re willing to shell out big bucks: $5.8 billion in 2016, according to Mintel, a market research group.

But finding remedies that are safe and effective can be daunting. A Consumer Reports survey of 744 adults across the U.S. who recently had a cough, a cold, or the flu found that many people thought there were simply too many options. (Think you know everything about the cold and flu? Take our quiz below.)

“We should be happy, I guess, that we have so many choices, but it can be overwhelming,” says Pattie Sullivan, a cold sufferer from Pittsburgh. “Some say ‘Severe,’ some ‘Cold and Flu,’ and I don’t necessarily know the difference.”

Yet only 23 percent of those in our survey asked a pharmacist for help. (CR’s advice: Don’t be shy! Pharmacists can steer you to the safest products, factoring in your health and meds.)

Even some of CR’s secret shoppers had a tough time navigating the cold and flu aisle.

We tasked 17 of them to explore pharmacies across the country. Though some stores, they reported, were organized by symptom, others seemed to have no organizing principle at all. Many shoppers searched in vain for single-ingredient remedies—those that target one symptom rather than a constellation and are recommended because they’re safer. Alternatives such as neti pots, which can ease symptoms without drugs, were often squirreled away on bottom shelves.

Shoppers also told us they were sometimes confused by words on labels, such as “suppressant” and “expectorant.” “You are forced to sort those terms out, and that is before you would look at the active ingredients list, which has terms that I am not qualified to understand,” one shopper said.

Seeing a doctor doesn’t always simplify matters, either. Many people, for example, expect antibiotics—though these drugs work only on bacterial infections, and the cold and flu are viral.

“Dealing with the cold and flu shouldn’t be so complicated,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “A number of simple steps can help, many that don’t require drugs at all,” he says.

Our cold and flu survival guide identifies the home remedies that really work and, when drugs are worthwhile, which to try and which to skip.



Editor's Note:
This article also appeared in the January 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.