Many people, confusing cold and flu, buy products including medication for symptoms they don't even have, said Chris Brown, a pharmacist at Schindel's Pharmacy in Hagerstown.
You can see why, given the way pharmaceutical companies market cold and flu remedies and smorgasbord of selections you'll find in grocery and chain drug stores, Brown said.
"They're there like a loaf of bread or a quart of milk to pick up on the way to the check out," he said.
While there are good combination products on the market, you need to beware of overkill and treat just the symptoms you have, Brown said.
A multi-symptom product for two or three symptoms is probably OK, as long as you have all those symptoms, he said. Look out for a product that lists four or more symptoms.
The best route is to tell your pharmacist your symptoms and other health problems and let him or her recommend the best treatment, Brown said.
Colds and flus - while very different from each other in symptoms, severity and duration - both seldom require medical attention, said Dr. John Reed, an internist and pediatrician at Smithsburg Family Medical Center.
An upper respiratory infection, commonly referred to as a cold, usually lasts between 7 and 10 days with symptoms including a stuffy and/or runny nose and maybe a cough, sore throat or low-grade fever, Reed said.
Flu, which can be caused by a number of specific viruses, generally hits you a lot harder but usually doesn't last past 72 hours, he said.
Flu is almost always categorized by high fever, head and body aches, and often includes cough, nausea and/or vomiting, Reed said.
While medication can't cure either type of disease, it can, at best, provide moderate relief of the various symptoms, he said.
The best ways to speed your recovery are to get eight or more hours of sleep every day, drink lots of fluids and eat healthy foods, Reed said.
Although over-the-counter cold and flu remedies aren't physically addictive, some people seem to develop a psychological addiction to the stuff, Brown said.
"They're only as addictive as patients think they are," he said.
Over-the-counter nasal sprays, while not physically addictive, are likely to make the condition worse if used longer than 72 hours, Reed said.
You should seek medical attention if cold or flu symptoms hang on past the average length or your immune system is compromised by HIV, advanced age or conditions affecting your heart and lungs, said Dr. Mohammad R. Malik, an emergency room physician at Washington County Hospital.