Dumb things people do when they’re sick

A woman blows her nose while sitting in a chair.

Uh oh. You’re hacking, sneezing, wheezing—and then you inadvertently make your cold or flu worse by playing doctor. Most people don't realize that common moves—like doubling up on medication—might end up prolonging their misery by a day or two.

When it comes to combating the common cold or the flu, you may spend the majority of the time treating the symptoms, like a fever or sore throat. If you suffer from the flu this season, get plenty of rest and fluids. The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. The best remedy for the flu is to get a flu shot. Even if you get sick in spite of the vaccination, the flu won’t hit you as hard.1 And no matter how tempting, avoid these tactics that might prevent you from getting better sooner:

  • You double up on cold meds. If a regular dose helps you feel better, won’t taking twice as much get you on the road to recovery twice as fast? Nope. Even over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be dangerous if you take too much. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist and follow the dosing instructions carefully. In some cases, serious complications may arise if you take more than the instructed amount—or take more than one type of medication at a time. Many cold and flu medicines are combinations, so you risk getting too much of a particular active ingredient when you take more than one medication. For example, if you take a multipurpose cold medicine and decide to chase it down with a separate decongestant, you may accidently take too much acetaminophen, which could cause acute liver damage.2 People with high blood pressure should also make sure they’re not overdoing it on decongestants, which work by tightening blood vessels and may raise blood pressure if taken in excess. Those with high blood pressure can choose special OTC medications that won’t raise their pressure. However, even though they’re OTC, they may still contain other powerful drugs.3
  • You’re a martyr. We all know one: the person who shows up at work (or anywhere in public) sick and risks everyone with the threat of spreading his or her sickness around. Sometimes the flu and its complications can be deadly. It’s best to avoid unnecessary contact with others until at least 24 hours after you’re fever free. If you must go out, make sure you limit your interactions with others and get into the habit of coughing into your elbow (not your hand). If you do cough or sneeze, it’s still a good idea to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands.4
  • You self-medicate with leftover antibiotics. You’re wasting your time—and upping your risk of becoming resistant to antibiotics when you really need them. Cold and flu are caused by viruses and can’t be treated with antibiotics. Viruses cause the common cold, most coughs and the flu. Using antibiotics will not cure the infection, help you feel better or keep others from catching your sickness.5
  • You’re OD’ing on nasal spray. For many cold and flu sufferers, nasal sprays work like a dream—until they stop working at all. If you use nasal sprays for longer than the recommended two days, or spritz too often, your body may develop a tolerance to the medicine and it will stop working. Then comes the dreaded “rebound effect”—you end up more congested than when you started. Follow the instructions and make sure you only use nasal spray for the recommended amount of time.6

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Sources

  1. “All about the flu and how to prevent it,” National Institute on Aging, last accessed September 29, 2017 https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/all-about-flu-and-how-prevent-it , opens new window.
  2. “Cold and Flu warning: The Dangers of Too Much Acetaminophen,” Harvard Health Publishing, last accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cold-and-flu-warning-the-dangers-of-too-much-acetaminophen-201601279065 , opens new window.
  3. “Are Over-the-Counter Cold Remedies Safe for People Who Have High Blood Pressure?,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/expert-answers/high-blood-pressure/faq-20058281 , opens new window.
  4. “Influenza (Flu),” Mayo Clinic, last accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719 , opens new window.
  5. “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work in Doctor’s Office,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed July 17, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/community/materials-references/print-materials/adults/b-general.html , opens new window
  6. “Can You Overuse Nasal Spray?,” WebMD, last accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/nasal-spray-are-you-overdoing-it#1 , opens new window.