Cold and flu season: Stock your medicine cabinet for less

Though our family has already had one sneak peek, cold and flu season is about ready to really get started.

Because I would like avoid as many sick visits to the doctor as I possibly can, I decided to check out our medicine cabinet and make sure it is ready for this winter — and beyond.

What you should include in your medicine cabinet

Obviously, what you should include in your medicine cabinet depends on your needs, but here is a list to get you started. Oh, and I am not a doctor. Obviously. Read the labels. Use common sense.

  • Pain relievers/fever reducers. Aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are popular items. Aspirin can't be used for children, and ibuprofen shouldn't be used for babies under six months old. My husband only has one kidney and, because of that, can't take ibuprofen. So your family could be like mine. To cover Mr. One-Kidney, a four-month-old, a seven-year-old, and an 11-year-old, we have a motley selection of all three. A digital thermometer is a must-have tool, too.
  • Decongestants. Congestion is my least favorite part of a cold. If I'm feeling well enough, I bust out my best Elvis: I'm all stuffed up, uh huh, yeah, yeah. I'm all stuffed up. Decongestants work by constricting blood vessels inside the nose and decreasing swelling. Because of the risk to my husband's remaining kidney, he has to avoid decongestants. A natural option? He uses a Neti pot (it looks like a genie's lamp) with filtered salt water. He thinks it helps for a day, so you could try that too.

For congestion, we also use saline nasal drops. And for babies, a bulb syringe can be used to get the mucus out of the nasal passages. We use a nasal aspirator called the Nosefrida.
(For some free entertainment, read the reviews on Amazon. Hilarious stuff!)

  • Antihistamines. While there are both prescription and over-the-counter allergy medications, Benadryl is an antihistamine that can be used as a sleep aid, if needed. If you get itchy eyes associated with your allergies, eye drops may also be useful.
  • Infection control. For minor scrapes, infections, etc, you need to stock up with some of the following: gauze, Band-aids, medical tapes, antibiotic ointment, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, tweezers (for splinters), etc. At my house, even the boring Band-aids are a hot commodity. The box gets raided frequently, so sometimes I consider locking them up. But maybe it's a small price to pay. Here's a tip: one of my kids stepped on a nail this summer. I cleaned up the small, minor wound, covered it with gauze, and then used some medical tape. I told him to keep it clean. Ten-year-old boys in the summer don't understand how to keep anything clean, and I was genuinely concerned that it was going to get infected. One of my friends told me the genius idea of wrapping his gauzed-up food with electrical tape. It worked so well that electrical tape is now my tape of choice.
  • Antacids. Tums and Maalox are handy to have on hand after a big Thanksgiving dinner puts too much pressure on your stomach.

Alternatives to the medicine cabinet

Don't forget about other home remedies that may help you save. First, drinking hot fluids or eating chicken noodle soup may decrease congestion. Insect bites may lose their itch when rubbed with the cut surface of an onion. For sore throats, gargle with salt water — or drink hot tea with a bit of honey in it, which has antibacterial properties. Speaking of drinks, serve up yourself a hot toddy to treat a cough or a cold. Take the opportunity to rest.

Fill up your medicine cabinet without emptying your wallet

Buying store brand food can definitely save you money over buying name brand food. But buying generic over-the-counter (or prescription) medications versus name brand medications can save you a significant amount of cash, sometimes up to 50 percent or more.

Both medications should work equally well. However, the FDA does allow for slight variability between generic and brand name medications. For instance, one study quoted on the FDA website said that medication absorption into the body varied by about 3.5 percent between generic and brand name medications.

For prescription medications, about five million Americans are filling their prescriptions through Canadian pharmacies. And they are crossing the border for good reason: US pharmacies may charge over 50 percent more than their international counterparts. Uh, apparently, it is illegal for Americans to buy medications from international pharmacies, but usually it isn't enforced. If that doesn't scare you, go forth and save!

Some pharmacies also have awards programs. While I don't save on prescriptions, I do get pharmacy cash that I can use on gauze, medical tape, and things like that.

Because I love practical gifts, I've often thought that a medicine kit stuffed with baby-appropriate goods would be a great gift for first-time parents. Baby clothes are cute, but they don't help you with a middle-of-the-night fever.

In any case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Try to be healthy in the first place: exercise, get enough sleep, decrease stress levels, eat right, wash your hands, and avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose, places where germs can easily enter your body.

What do you have in your medicine cabinet? Any other ideas to fill it cheaply?

More about...Frugality, Health & Fitness

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