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by Paul Spencer – B.Pharm
As winter approaches, it is the time of year when coughs, colds and influenza rear their heads again. There is a common misconception that flu is just a bad cold, but flu can be much more serious than a cold and each year thousands of people die of complications following flu. Although colds and flu share some of the same symptoms (sneezing, coughing, sore throat), they are caused by different viruses. It is common for someone to say they have flu when in fact it is just a cold. Chances are if they had flu they would not be stood there to tell you, they would be in bed!
Colds and flu share some of the same symptoms but flu is usually more severe than a cold.
Symptoms of a cold include:
- runny nose, beginning with clear mucus that develops into thicker, green mucus as the cold progresses
- blocked nose
- sore throat
- People with a cold may also suffer with a mild fever, earache, tiredness and headache.
Symptoms develop over one or two days and gradually get better after a few days. Some colds can last for up to two weeks.
Flu usually comes on much more quickly than a cold, and can include any of the following symptoms:
- sudden fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
- dry, chesty cough
- aching muscles
- limb or joint pain
- diarrhoea or upset stomach
- sore throat
- runny or blocked nose
- loss of appetite
- difficulty sleeping
Symptoms usually peak after two to three days and you should begin to feel much better within five to eight days. However, you may have a lingering cough and still feel very tired for a further two to three weeks.
A severe cold can also cause muscle aches and fever, so it can be hard to tell the difference.
Whether it’s a cold or flu, get medical advice if you have a chronic condition (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease), or you have a very high fever as well as an unusually severe headache or abdominal or chest pain.
Someone who is generally fit and healthy can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu without the need to see a doctor. There are a number of different medicines available over the counter to treat a range of symptoms and the particular type of medicine a person needs is determined by their symptoms:
Painkillers: Paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help to reduce a fever. They also act as painkillers but aspirin cannot be given to anyone under the age of 16. Liquid formulations of paracetamol or ibuprofen are available for children and should be considered to treat a feverish child in distress. They should not be used at the same time, but doses can be alternated if distress persists or recurs before the next dose.
Decongestants: Decongestants can be taken by mouth, for example pseudoephedrine, or can be used as a nasal spray such as Otrivine or Vicks Sinex Nasal Spray. They work by reducing the swelling in the nasal passages and they may also help to ease breathing. However, using nasal decongestants frequently or for a long time, may make congestion worse and for this reason nasal decongestants should only be used for a maximum of seven consecutive days at a time. Taking oral decongestants too close to bedtime may result in problems sleeping as they can increase blood pressure and heart rate, so for this reason anyone with high blood pressure cannot use oral decongestants.
Cough remedies: There are numerous cough remedies available and the most suitable treatment depends on whether the cough is productive or non-productive. Expectorants such as Benylin Chesty Cough or Robitussin Chesty Cough help to break down phlegm making it easier to cough up.Suppressants such as Benylin Dry Cough or Pavacol D are used to treat dry, non-productive coughs and are useful to treat coughs that are irritating, tickly or dry. Cough suppressants are not suitable if phlegm and mucus needs to be cleared. Children’s cough remedies such as Tixylix Toddler Syrup or Benylin Tickly coughs often contain soothing ingredients such as glycerol, glucose, honey or treacle, and help to suppress and reduce the frequency of coughs.
Sore throats: Sore throat symptoms can be relieved by drinking plenty of fluids to help lubricate the throat to make swallowing and talking easier. Sucking boiled sweets or throat pastilles stimulates the flow of saliva that can also help ease symptoms. If the throat is particularly sore, pastilles or sprays containing the local anaesthetic benzocaine or lidocaine such as AAA Sore Throat Spray, Ultra Chloraseptic Anaesthetic Throat Spray or Tyrozets Lozenges can help provide relief. Oral paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used, or flurbiprofen (an anti-inflammatory similar to ibuprofen) sucked in the form of a lozenge (Strefen Lozenges), and will help ease pain.
Non drug treatments
As well as medication, non drug treatment can be beneficial too including:
- Steam inhalation: With your head over a bowl of hot water, a towel over your head, simply close your eyes and breathe deeply (but avoid getting the hot steam in your eyes). The steam may help to ease your congestion by loosening mucus and make it easier to clear by blowing your nose. Vicks Vaporub, menthol crystals or eucalyptus oil can be added to hot water too and the vapour inhaled through the nose for added relief. Steam inhalation is not advisable for children due to the risk of scalding. Instead, a child may benefit from sitting in a hot, steamy bathroom.
- Gargling: Gargling with salt water can sometimes help to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.
- Vapour rubs: Menthol containing products such as Vicks Vaporub, can help to soothe the symptoms of nasal catarrh, sore throats, congestion and coughs due to colds. They can also be useful for babies and young children. Apply the rub to your child’s chest and back, but don’t apply it to their nostrils because this could cause pain and breathing difficulties. Alternatively, a plug-in device such as Calpol Vapour plug may help relieve a child’s stuffy nose at night time.
- Menthol sweets: Some people find that sucking a menthol sweet such as Vocalzone or Lockets can help to relieve the symptom of a sore throat.
- Nasal saline drops or sprays: Products such as Nosefrida Nasal spray or Calpol Saline Nasal Spraycontain salt water and can help relieve the symptoms of nasal congestion in babies and young children.
All colds and most coughs and sore throats are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against infections caused by viruses so there is no point in asking a GP for them. If anything, antibiotics may cause unpleasant side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea. Antibiotics are important medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic and can become ‘antibiotic resistant’ so that the antibiotic no longer works. The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. Some bacteria that cause infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics. So unnecessary use of antibiotics such as attempting to treat a cold will only help to increase antibiotic resistance.
Coughs and sneezes spread diseases
Help prevent colds and flu from spreading by:
- sneezing or coughing into a tissue
- throwing the tissue away
- washing your hands
- getting the flu jab if you’re eligible. For more information see http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vaccinations/Pages/who-should-have-flu-vaccine.aspx
- some pharmacies also offer the flu jab, both the free NHS jab and private flu jabs which would have to be paid for