Coping with colds and flu

Most of us will have a cold this autumn or winter and some of us will have 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 on a person's fingers. For example, if you have a cold and you touch your nose or eyes and then touch someone else, you may pass the virus on to them.

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.

Don't pass it on

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.

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 well 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 it 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. But aspirin shouldn't be given to children under 16 years of age. “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.

Find out 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 to 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 more 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, and older and frailer people should get help if they're unwell. All babies under three months with a temperature of more than 38°C (100.4°F) should be urgently assessed by a doctor, as should babies aged three to six months with a temperature higher than 39°C (102.2°F).

 

Page last reviewed: 18/10/2012

Next review due: 18/10/2014

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