Colds and flu can affect us at any time of the year, but we are more prone to pick up bugs as the weather turns cold. Many people easily mistake the flu for just a bad cold. While both can be dangerous for high risk groups, such as babies and the elderly, flu kills thousands of people each year, so it’s good to be informed.
Often it’s hard to differentiate between the two as they share similar symptoms (sneezing, coughing, sore throat, etc). There are around 200 viruses that cause colds and three that cause flu. The flu virus mutates each year creating many new strains, which is why it’s important to have annual vaccinations to remain protected.
The common cold is caused by a viral infection of the nose and throat. According to the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff, adults can suffer between two and five colds and school children can catch up to 10 colds every year. Densely populated areas and public transport are the ideal breeding grounds for colds, as we come into contact with the virus by breathing in or touching droplets of infected mucus.
Usual symptoms for a cold include:
- runny nose, beginning with clear mucus that develops into thicker, green mucus as the cold progresses
- blocked nose
- sore throat
People may also suffer with a mild fever, earache, tiredness and headache. The symptoms develop over one or two days before clearing up a few days later, although bad colds can last for up to two weeks.
Flu tends to be more severe and can make you feel so unwell that you have to stay in bed until you feel better. The symptoms come on more quickly than a cold, often with a fever, chills, headache, achy muscles, and tiredness:
- high temperature (38-40°C)
- muscle aches and pains
- feeling exhausted
- loss of appetite, feeling nauseous
- dry, chesty cough
If you’re generally fit and healthy, you can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu yourself without seeing a doctor. Take plenty of rest, drink non-alcoholic fluids to avoid dehydration and avoid strenuous activity. Breathing in steam from a hot bath or inhalant drops in a bowl of hot water can help ease a blocked nose. Hot water with lemon juice and honey are soothing and hydrating, while herbal remedies such as Echinacea, along with zinc and vitamin C can help the body fight infections.
There are also lots of good over-the-counter remedies to help ease the symptoms: painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol in either tablet or powder form are good for aches and pain relief; there are vaporisers, decongestant tablets and nasal sprays for blocked noses and to improve breathing; and throat lozenges, sprays and cough syrups for sore throats.
Antibiotics can’t cure a cold or flu
Antibiotics can’t cure viruses such as colds and flu: you have to wait for the body to fight and destroy the virus itself. Bad colds can also result in bacterial infections, such as bronchitis or strep throat, which is when your doctor would prescribe antibiotics.
High risk groups should get a flu jab
The earlier in the season you are vaccinated, the more time your body has to make the antibodies to fight the flu virus, which can take up to 10 days. The Department of Health recommends the jab for anyone who is/has:
- Over 65
- Asthmatic or Diabetic
- Heart, Kidney or Liver Disease
- Weakened Immune System
- Main carer
Mothers-to-be are naturally wary of taking any unnecessary medicines during their pregnancy. However, catching flu while pregnant could be dangerous for both the mother and baby. Vaccination can help prevent flu-related complications, reduce the risk of premature or low-weight birth, and give a baby protection in the first few months of life.
It’s worth also noting that the most vulnerable may also be eligible for a free pneumonia vaccine, which offers protection for up to five years. It can be given safely at the same time as the flu jab. Even if you are not eligible for a free jab, take advantage of the walk-in service many pharmacies operate: it costs just £10 per vaccination.
Talk to your local pharmacist about any concerns you may have. They can also check if you are eligible for free flu and pneumonia vaccinations, and also that medically you are well enough to have these jabs.
Some people get flu-like symptoms after their vaccination, which clear up after a few days. It is very rare to have a more prolonged or serious reaction to the flu jab, both those who do should immediately contact their pharmacist or doctor.
Remember, 75% of those getting the jab will not get flu this season and those who do will have far milder symptoms. So don’t wait for an epidemic, get vaccinated and enjoy a flu-free winter!
Main picture above: woman with tissue and hot drink — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
About the author: Feriha İbrahim is a fully qualified pharmacist who, together with her family, runs Woodside Pharmacy – both branches are located in Leytonstone, London E11.