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.
The main symptoms of winter cold and flu bugs are:
If these are the only symptoms you have, it’s unlikely that your doctor 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.
Dr Rupal Shah, a doctor 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”.
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.
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.
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 doctor. These include:
Babies, as well as older and frailer people, should get help if they're unwell.
Always contact your doctor, health visitor, practice nurse or nurse practitioner if either:
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.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.