Relieving the symptoms of a respiratory tract infection

Managing your symptoms depends on the kind of respiratory tract infection (RTI) you have, but there are ways to relieve the symptoms of some common RTIs such as colds and flu.

See your doctor if your symptoms come on suddenly, are severe, become worse, or last longer than usual.

Medicines for relieving pain and fever

  • Adults and children older than 1 month can take paracetamol.
  • Adults and children older than 3 months can take ibuprofen.
  • The dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen for children is worked out according to how much your child weighs. Read more about measuring and administering a child’s dose of medicine.
  • Some people may not be able to take paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • Do not give aspirin to children younger than 12 years as it may cause serious side effects.
  • Do not use aspirin for fever in children younger than 16 years. This is because Reye’s syndrome, which can affect brain function and cause liver damage, has been associated with aspirin use in children (this is rare)*.

Fevers are common in young children, especially if they have an RTI or following a vaccination. A fever (a temperature of 38.5°C or higher) doesn’t necessarily mean your child has a serious illness. In fact, a fever helps the body's immune system to fight infection. Find out more about how to treat a fever.

* Rare: fewer than 1 in 1000 people will experience the side effect.

Some tips for using pain and fever medicines safely

  • Paracetamol (or ibuprofen) is also a common ingredient in some cold and flu medicines, so it is important to check the active ingredients on the label of your medicine to avoid “doubling up” and taking other medicines that also contain paracetamol.
  • It is important that you tell your health professional about all the medicines you or anyone in your care is taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamin and mineral supplements) medicines. This is because all medicines, including herbal and natural medicines, can cause side effects and may interact with other medicines.
  • Some medicines cannot be taken by people with particular medical conditions, by people who are also taking certain other medicines, by young children, during pregnancy or when breastfeeding.

To choose the best medicine for you or your child ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice and always read the label on your medicine.

Read more about paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin.

Note about medicines names

Most medicines have two names: the active ingredient and the brand name. The active ingredient is the chemical in the medicine that makes it work. The brand name is the name given to the medicine by its manufacturer. There may be several brands that contain the same active ingredient. This website uses active ingredient names (e.g. paracetamol), with brand names in brackets (e.g. Panadol). We also discuss medicines in groups or ‘classes’, when their effects or actions are very similar.

To find out more about active ingredients and brand names read our brand choices information.

Nasal sprays can relieve a blocked nose

Nasal decongestants can be tablets, sprays or drops. Image: Elena Schweitzer / Shutterstock.com

Medicines to relieve a blocked nose (nasal congestion)

Nasal decongestants can help to relieve a blocked nose, but should not be used for more than 4 or 5 consecutive days to avoid rebound nasal congestion

  • Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline should not be used in children younger than 6 years. Use salt water (saline) nasal sprays or drops instead of a nasal decongestant for children.
  • Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline or xylometazoline to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Read more about nasal decongestants.

Before using any medicine, check with a doctor or pharmacist about the safest one for you or your child. Always read the information on the label and the consumer medicine information (CMI) that is available from your pharmacist.

See your doctor if your symptoms get worse or if your symptoms don’t improve after 10 days.

‘Cough and cold’, and ‘cold and flu’ medicines

Cough and cold, cold and flu medicines are available and may relieve your symptoms, but there are few good quality clinical trials proving their effectiveness, particularly in children.

Advice about cough and cold medicines for children has changed from 15 August 2012.

  • Cough and cold medicines should not be given to children younger than 6 years old.
  • Ask a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner for advice before giving any cough and cold medicines to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Before using any medicine, check with a doctor or pharmacist about the safest one for you or your child. Always read the information on the label and the consumer medicine information (CMI) that is available form your pharmacist.

Find out more information about the cough and cold medicines and nasal decongestants affected by this change.

What else can I do to relieve my symptoms?

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of water and non-alcoholic fluids
  • Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Inhale steam to help relieve a blocked nose. Supervise your child while they breathe in steam from a hot bath or shower in a closed room.

You can help soothe a sore throat by:

  • gargling with warm salty water
  • sucking on an ice cube or a throat lozenge
  • drinking hot water with honey and lemon — a simple and effective home remedy.

Complementary medicines

While some people may find vitamins (e.g. vitamin C), mineral supplements (e.g. zinc) or herbal medicines (e.g. echinacea) helpful, there is not enough information from good quality clinical trials to show that vitamin or mineral supplements or herbal medicines help to treat or prevent respiratory tract infections (RTIs). This is particularly the case for children.

There is also generally limited information on the safety of vitamins, minerals and complementary medicines, and some can cause side effects.

Read more about vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc.

Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking

It is important that you tell your health professional about all the medicines you or anyone in your care is taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ’natural’, vitamin and mineral supplements). This is because all medicines, including herbal and natural medicines, can cause side effects and may interact with other medicines. The benefits and risks of herbal and natural medicines may not have been tested.

Call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to get information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and minerals) from a pharmacist. Your call will be answered by healthdirect Australia.

References
  • Rossi S, ed. eAMH [online]. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook, January 2012.
  • Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3 (accessed 19 March 2012).
  • Linde K, Barrett B, Bauer R, Melchart D, Woelkart K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000530. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub2 (accessed 19 March 2012).
  • Hemilä H, Chalker E, Douglas B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art no.: CD000980. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub3 (accessed 19 March 2012).
  • Ask Your Pharmacist. Changes to the use of Cough and Cold medicines in children. September 2012.  (Accessed 10 October 2012)