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Consumer Reports explains what cold and flu labels really mean

Navigating the cold and flu medicine aisle can be dizzying, especially when a bug already has you feeling miserable. Here's what you need to know.

by Erika Edwards / / Source: NBC News

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We spend almost $6 billion dollars a year on cold and flu products, but do we really know what we’re buying?

Navigating a drug store's cold and flu medicine aisle can be dizzying, especially when a bug already has you feeling miserable.

"There are hundreds of products on store shelves and an incredible amount of confusion,” Lisa Gill, deputy content editor at Consumer Reports, told NBC News.

To clear things up, Consumer Reports has just published a primer on over-the-counter product labels. If you've ever stood and stared at all of the cold medications wondering what to purchase, this guide is for you:

Do I need a cough expectorant or suppressant?

If you have a nasty cough, an expectorant will thin your mucus and encourage you to cough more to get rid of extra phlegm.

If your cough is more annoying, you may opt for a suppressant, which blocks the cough reflex.

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What does “severe” mean on the label?

Any medication labeled "severe" suggests the manufacturer added an extra ingredient, so a detailed read of the label is a good idea, Consumer Reports advised.

What about "multi-symptom" products?

Watch for the pain reliever acetaminophen if you're looking at those types of medicines. Too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

"Acetaminophen shows up in all of these different products, sometimes when you don't really even need it. It's easy to get too much of it, and that's something that we were really concerned about,” Gill said.

Choose single ingredient products as much as possible because the more drugs are included, the greater the risk of side effects, Consumer Reports advised.

Do home remedies work?

Yes! Hot chicken soup is a great choice. Hot fluids in general help keep nasal passages moist, thin out your mucus, prevent dehydration and sooth a sore throat, nutritionist and TODAY contributor Joy Bauer said. A University of Nebraska study also found chicken soup with a variety of veggies may contain substances that function as an anti-inflammatory mechanism and potentially ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including congestion, stuffy nose, cough and sore throat.

It's always a shock to find out how effective chicken soup can be, Gill noted: "We highly recommend chicken soup. The research on it is terrific,” she said.

Honey can be good for easing coughs, while gargling with salt water can soothe a sore throat.

When in doubt, ask a pharmacist.

They're glad to come out from behind the counter and help you find the right medication to feel better — faster.

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