Here’s What to Keep in Your Medicine Cabinet In Case You Get Sick

6 essential items to keep on hand for colds, the flu and COVID-19
man checking dates on medicine in his cabinet

By now, we all know that it’s important to stay home when we’re sick or not feeling well. Doing so will reduce the chance of spreading our germs to other people (whether it’s a cold, the flu or COVID-19).

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And since symptoms overlap between these three illnesses, it’s even more important to be vigilant about protecting others. It’s also a good idea to prepare for illness by keeping the right medicine and equipment on hand.

Family medicine specialist Donald Ford, MD, MBA, shares his list of must-haves and what to consider for your medicine cabinet during cold and flu season.

First, throw away expired medicine

It might be tempting to take expired medication from time to time. After all, how harmful could an expired ibuprofen tablet be?

According to the FDA, expired medicine is less effective and could even be risky because of the chemical changes that happen over time. Other medicines become dangerous if they disintegrate or if you take them with new medicine that your doctor or pharmacist doesn’t know about.

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Keeping multiple pill bottles is also confusing. Plus, the last thing you’ll want to do if you get sick is rummage through bottles and boxes of old medication. 

To be safe, it’s recommended that you clean out your medicine cabinet once a year. Then, it’s important to discard of the old medicine safely.  

How should you stock your medicine cabinet for cold and flu?

“A little bit of prevention is a really good idea right now,” says Dr. Ford. “You don’t want to be running out when the fever hits. You want to have these items at home in your medicine cabinet ready to go, should you need them.”

 Here are his recommendations:

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  1. A working thermometer. Fever is one of the most prominent symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu, so being able to accurately track if you have one is important. Dr. Ford says oral thermometers that go under your tongue are best, but other variations work well too.
  2. Fever reducers and pain killers. Whether it’s acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), make sure you have whatever you typically take on hand. This medication will help you fend off fevers, chills, sinus pain, headaches and muscle aches. 
  3. Over-the-counter medicine. There are so many options for cold and flu medicine – and truthfully, they’re all just slight variations of each other, Dr. Ford says. Consider picking up cough syrup or a decongestant if you typically take those things when you’re sick, but don’t run out and buy the whole shelf. Cough drops or sinus rinses can also be helpful, but it really comes down to what works for you. “I encourage people to try different things and see what works for them because everybody’s body is a little bit different,” he says.  
  4. Pulse oximeters. If you have asthma or an underlying condition that puts you at greater risk for serious illness, it might be helpful to have a pulse oximeter at home. This device measures the levels of oxygen in your blood. “I wouldn’t say run out and instantly buy one, but see if they’re available online or at your drug store,” says Dr. Ford. “It’s been one of the tools we’ve used to monitor folks who have COVID-19 and who are having problems with shortness of breath.”  
  5. Allergy medicine. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold, the flu, COVID-19 and allergies. So if you typically suffer from allergies, be sure to keep you allergy medicine or any eye drops on hand.   
  6. Prescription medication. It’s a good idea to have a 30-day supply of any prescriptions you’re currently taking. This will reduce the need to venture out for a refill in case you get sick.

Remember, all medicine is going to eventually expire, so you’ll have to keep an eye on the expiration dates in your medicine cabinet. Panic buying the whole shelf of cold medicine will seem silly when you have to throw away most of it when it expires!

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any curative medicine for the common cold or flu, so we don’t have anything that will just make it go away,” says Dr. Ford. “But there are symptomatic treatment options available both OTC and through your doctor’s office that can ease symptoms or shorten the duration of your sickness.”

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