Coping with colds and flu

Most of us will have a cold this autumn or winter, and some of us will have the flu. Here's how to look after yourself if these viruses affect you.

Colds and flu are caused by viruses. There are more than 200 common cold viruses and three types of flu virus, with many different strains, so they're hard to avoid.

These viruses can be spread through droplets that are coughed and sneezed out by an infected person. The viruses can also be transferred via a person's fingers or surfaces, such as door handles, if there are infected droplets on them.

The virus enters the body via the nose or eyes. If you have infected droplets on your fingers and you touch your eyes or nose, the virus can enter your body.  

Cold symptoms

The main symptoms of winter cold and flu bugs are:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • blocked nose
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • a slight temperature

If these are the only symptoms you have, it’s unlikely that your GP will be able to do anything.

You may want to visit your local pharmacy, where you can get advice on how to manage the symptoms and buy over-the-counter medicine.

Get rest and eat well

Dr Rupal Shah, a GP in south London, has the following advice: “Try to rest, eat well, avoid stress and keep hydrated. If you have a fever, you may need extra fluids. You could also take paracetamol to treat fever and pain, or inhale steam with a decongestant in to help clear a blocked nose.”

Pharmacists say cold and flu medicines are among their top sellers in the winter. Some of the remedies combine painkillers with decongestants, which can help to manage symptoms.

“Painkillers – such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin – can really help if you have a cold,” says pharmacist Angela Chalmers. However, aspirin shouldn't be given to children under 16 years of age. She adds that, “decongestants help to reduce the swelling inside your nose so you can breathe more easily”. 

Find your local pharmacy.

In most cases, antibiotics (which are used to treat bacterial infections) aren’t necessary. “Colds and flu, and most coughs, are caused by viruses, so antibiotics can’t help. Minor bacterial infections will also be fought off by natural immunity,” explains Dr Shah.

Read more about treating colds and treating flu.

Children and colds

Children can be treated using some over-the-counter painkillers, to ease discomfort and help bring down a fever. Both paracetamol and ibuprofen are available as a liquid for children, and can be given from the age of about three months. Always check with your doctor if you aren’t sure which treatments you can give your child.

There are some benefits, particularly for children, in catching a few coughs and colds. “Children tend to get a lot of colds because the body takes time to build up immunity. Your body learns to fight off a particular kind of virus every time you get an infection, which is why you get fewer colds as you get older," says Angela Chalmers. 

Find out about children and medicines.

When to see a doctor

While most bugs will run their course without doing any real harm, Dr Shah says there are certain cases when you or your child should see a GP. These include:

  • if you or your child have a chronic condition – such as asthmadiabetes or heart disease
  • if you have a very high temperature and feel ill – for example, if you also have an unusually severe headache or abdominal pain
  • if your child is vomiting but does not have diarrhoea, or has a rash in addition to the fever
  • if your child stops drinking and is unusually lethargic
  • if your child’s fever doesn’t respond to paracetamol or ibuprofen

Babies, as well as older and frailer people, should get help if they're unwell.

Always contact your GP, health visitor, practice nurse or nurse practitioner if either:

  • your child has other signs of illness, as well as a raised temperature
  • your baby’s temperature is 38C (100.4F) or higher (if they’re under three months)
  • your baby’s temperature is 39C (102.2F) or higher (if they’re three to six months)

If you need to speak to someone outside of normal surgery hours, you can call your GP surgery’s out-of-hours service (if they have one) or NHS 111.

Help stop germs spreading

CATCH IT Germs spread easily. Always carry tissues and use them to catch your cough or sneeze.
BIN IT Germs can live for several hours on tissues. Dispose of your tissue as soon as possible.
KILL IT Hands can transfer germs to every surface you touch. Clean your hands as soon as you can. This guide tells you how to wash your hands properly.


Page last reviewed: 07/10/2014

Next review due: 31/08/2017


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