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It's that time of year                            

                                        February 2009


colds and fluIf you are one of the few who have been lucky enough to miss this season’s bout of colds and flu, you are in the minority.

Most people suffer from around two or three colds a year, and generally during the winter months.

Both colds and flu are caused by viruses and while there are only a few types of major influenza viruses, there are hundreds of different types of viruses that can cause a cold. This is one of the reasons why we don’t build up our own immunity and can catch cold after cold.

Most of us know you can catch cold and flu viruses from other people – sneezing or coughing releases infected droplets into the air which you can breathe in. Infections can also be spread from contact. However, many of us don’t know if we are suffering from a cold or flu and don’t really understand the difference, either. In fact, colds and flu are really quite different.

The cold virus starts in the soft, warm surfaces of your nose, sinuses, throat and airways and typical symptoms include a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and perhaps a cough. You can have a fever or aching muscles, but this aspect is not usually too serious and symptoms disappear after around a week.

With flu, the symptoms can be similar to start with but the feeling of tiredness and aching muscles will be much more severe. You are also much more likely to have a high temperature and the symptoms can last a lot longer, sometimes for several weeks.

As a general guideline, you probably have flu rather than a cold if:

  • you have a definite fever
  • you have severe aches and tiredness
  • symptoms appeared suddenly rather than gradually
  • you suffer from shivering
  • you suffer from a bad headache
  • you are not sneezing


What you can do

With the great advances in modern medicine, you would think a magic pill would have been developed by now that could banish the symptoms of these common problems. Not so! At the moment there is no instant cure for colds and flu and antibiotics do not work either.

If you are in good health and not too elderly, you don’t need to see a doctor if you are suffering from the basic symptoms of a cold or flu. However, in special cases where flu could cause other complications, a doctor may recommend antiviral medication or antibiotics to treat additional infections caused by bacteria, such as a chest infection or infections of the ear or throat.

Otherwise the recommendations are to keep warm, stay at home, rest and drink plenty of warm fluids – you will be losing more fluid that usual through mucus and perspiration.

There is a range of excellent over the counter treatments to minimize the symptoms and discomfort caused by flu and colds and today they come in all forms from capsules and tablets to powders and some very comforting hot drinks. The main thing is to read the instructions carefully and not exceed maximum doses by mixing and matching different products.

Pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are useful to relieve the general aches and pains.  Decongestants can also help to shrink down the swollen tissues in your nasal passages and help you breathe more easily. Some expectorant linctuses used to loosen the catarrh that can cause coughing also contain a decongestant. Inhaling menthol, eucalyptus or other essential oils in steam can also help unblock your nose and make you feel more comfortable.

There is lots of information about natural remedies to minimize the symptoms, but currently there is no medical back-up that supports the idea that large doses of vitamin C, zinc or echinacea can really help.

With colds and flu so much part of everyday winter life in the UK, pharmacies everywhere will be able to offer you lots of advice and appropriate products to treat your symptoms. If you have other health problems that could be affected by a cold or flu, then your doctor will be able to give advice on what to do.

The good news is that because colds and flu are just so prevalent, the best products and best advice are readily available everywhere. There are even lots of websites to help: (Consumer Health Information Centre)


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