Dumb Things People Do When They're Sick
By Maridel Reyes
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, your body gets rid of infections on its own, and when we take medicine, the majority of the time you’re only treating the symptoms, says Neil Schachter.1 If you’re felled by the cold or flu this season, get plenty of rest and fluids. The best remedy for 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.2 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. “You have to be careful, and you have to know what you’re doing when you take medication,” says Schachter. “Medications have side effects.” 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 multi-purpose cold medicine and decide to chase it down with a separate decongestant, you may inadvertently ingest more than the recommended 9 gram dosage of acetaminophen, which could cause acute liver damage. 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.3
- You blow your nose too hard. Gentle, please! Blowing your nose too hard will propel nasal fluid (which may contain bacteria and viruses) into your sinus cavities, possibly causing an infection there. Schachter recommends squirting a little saline into your nose before blowing. (Use a neti pot or a squeegee bottle.) Gently spray and let saline settle a bit. The liquid tights up the blood vessels in your nose because of the salt in the water, and it will also loosen mucus so you don’t have to blow your nose so hard.4
- You’re a martyr. We all know one: The person who shows up at work (and to the gym, and to parties) sick and terrorizes everyone with the threat of spreading his or her sickness around. “You don’t want to disseminate your cold to co-workers,” warns Schachter. “Work is a stressful environment, and stress is something that diminishes your immune system. Stress makes it easier for viruses to get a grip on you, and you get more intense symptoms.” Schachter adds that if you go to work, it’s not likely that you’ll do a good job, anyway: “It will be hard to focus. And if you have a dangerous job, you can hurt yourself since some medicines make you drowsy.”5
- 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. “The vast majority of people who get colds and flu get over it nicely without taking antibiotics,” says Schachter. “That’s because cold and flu are caused by viruses. Unless you take Tamiflu early on, antibiotics won’t change the course of the cold. Only a small percent of colds are bacterial infections which require antibiotics.”6
- You’re OD-ing on nasal spray. For many cold and flu sufferers, nasal sprays like Afrin work like a dream—until they stop working at all. Here’s what really happens: It’s so effective, you feel like cold is almost gone, says Schachter. But if you use nasal sprays for longer than the recommended two days, or spritz too often, your body develops a tolerance to the medicine and it stops 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 one or two days, and only once or twice a day, says Schachter.7
Sources not cited or linked to above:
1-7 Neil Schachter, MD, Professor of Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu.
This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical, legal, financial, or other professional advice or used in place of consulting a licensed professional. You should consult with an applicable licensed professional to determine what is right for you.