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Sickening cost of flu remedies—some of which don't work

Friday, 3 Jan 2014 | 8:00 AM ET

Coming down with the flu can make your bank account equally unwell—particularly if you trust the wrong remedies.

In a 2011 Walgreens survey, one-third of respondents said they spent between $250 and $1,000 out of pocket to treat the flu. That was during a fairly mild season. This year, data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that a higher proportion of people have seen a doctor for flu-like symptoms—and the season is just picking up.

Experts weigh in on which preventive measures and treatments are worth the money, and which aren't:

Marc Romanelli | Photolibrary | Getty Images

Flu shots

"Far and away the best way to prevent flu is to get the vaccine," said Dr. Michael Jhung, a medical officer for the CDC's influenza division. "We recommend that every year."

Flu season typically peaks in January or February, so it's not too late for people to get vaccinated as a preventive measure, even if co-workers or friends have already been ill.

Antivirals

Most people don't need an antiviral such as Tamiflu, according to Dr. Amy Crawford, a family physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"They're wonderful to shorten and abort the course of influenza," she said. But doctors usually recommend antivirals only for patients at high risk of complications, such as the elderly, young children and pregnant women.

Even for those patients, antivirals may be less effective if not taken within a day or so of the onset of symptoms.

(Read more: Efforts to pass paid sick leave laws face backlash)

Supplements

Ingest with caution.

"There's a lot of overpromotion on the flu and supplements," said Dr. Todd Cooperman, president of the supplement testing site ConsumerLab.com. Various studies have found that probiotics, vitamin D or ginseng might help lessen the risk of contracting the flu in some populations. "These are all things that have some kind of connection to the immune system," he said.

But if you already have the flu, there's little evidence that they help. And some cold and flu remedies can have adverse effects. For example, ginseng can interfere with blood thinners, and too much zinc can trigger diarrhea, so talk to your doctor first, Cooperman said.

Disinfecting wipes

Clorox and Lysol both claim their wipes kill 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria. Lysol says its wipes nixed the 2009 pandemic H1N1 variant; Clorox calls out influenza A2. Clean away. "Flu, believe it or not, is a fairly fragile organism," Jhung said. "Many disinfectants will kill it."

But wipes aren't fool-proof, given multiple flu variants and myriad germ-harboring items. Make sure to wash your hands, too, especially before touching your face, and after touching a common surface like counters or doorknobs, he said.

(Read more: Mommy penalty: The cost for women who have it all)

Flu season's coming, so who benefits?
CNBC's Bertha Coombs looks at the impact of the flu season and the companies that benefit, with Damien Conover of Morningstar.

Over-the-counter meds

Doctors recommend OTC remedies for alleviating certain flu symptoms—namely, high fever, body aches, cough and sore throat. But it will still take time to feel better. "The reality of influenza is that it makes you feel bad for five to eight days," Crawford said. "You're in it for the long haul. You can treat the symptoms, but you can't make it go away any faster."

Chicken soup

Call up Grandma. The CDC advises drinking plenty of water and other clear liquids—such as broth—to prevent dehydration.

"I don't think chicken soup hurts at all," Jhung said.

(Read more: Financial workers fall sick due to stress)

Home remedies

Mom's recommendations for tea with honey, a salt water gargle or a long hot shower have their role. They can't hurt, and might help. Steam from the shower can promote decongestion. Honey has a very mild pain-relieving effect, and salt water can be mildly anti-inflammatory, Crawford said.

The key word there is "mildly." Such remedies can help, but don't expect an instant turnaround.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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