Winter colds and flu

How to deal with cold and flu this winter – and help the NHS at the same time.

The NHS is under pressure. In the winter, more than ever.

In winter 2017, hospitals were urged to delay non-urgent elective care (which could include a diagnosis, treatment or procedure) until after 31 January 2018 to free up capacity for the sickest patients. (Cancer operations and time-critical procedures were still to go ahead as planned.)

What should I do if I need a GP over the winter?

The NHS National Emergency Pressures Panel say ‘calling 111 is often a quicker and more convenient way of obtaining clinical assessment and advice in non-emergencies and allows staff in A&E to focus on the sickest patients.’

GPs see more than a million patients a day across the UK. The Royal College of GPs (RCGPs) says that while demand has increased by 16% in the last seven years, the number of GPs has not risen in line. The RCGPs has a snappily named mantra: ‘three before GP’. They suggest that, before making a GP appointment, you could try: 

  • self-care - what can you do yourself? (Check out our self-care tips for a cold below.)
  • NHS Choices or similar reputable websites/resources such as this site
  • talking to your local pharmacist 
OK, so how do I self-care for a cold?

There are four things you can do yourself:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • drink plenty of water (or fruit juice/squash mixed with water) to avoid dehydration
  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat.

Certainly worth trying. They'll save the time involved in getting a GP appointment and save you from going to the surgery: a popular meeting place, along with public transport, for cold and flu viruses.

And how can the pharmacist help?

You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise on what’s best for you.

  • Decongestant sprays or tablets can ease a blocked nose.
  • Painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce aches or lower a temperature.

Be careful not to take cough and cold medicines if you’re also taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets - taken together it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Check very carefully which medicines are OK for children, babies, pregnant women and for any other conditions you may have such as asthma.

The NHS says ‘there’s little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin c, zinc, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery’.

What about antibiotics?

Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics fight bacterial infections. In other words, they’re useless against a cold. Both viruses and bacteria are microbes but they’re completely different, in the same way as chimps and chaffinches are both animals.

If self-care doesn’t work when should I see my GP?

The NHS says see your GP if:

  • symptoms don't improve after three weeks
  • symptoms get suddenly worse
  • temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • it is hard to breathe
  • you have chest pain
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease - or a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy. 
Any tips for avoiding a cold in the first place?

It’s not easy but

  • make sure you wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap,
  • avoid sharing towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold and, toughest one of all,
  • try not to touch your eyes or nose in case you've come into contact with the virus (eyes and noses are the virus's easiest routes into the body).
What's the difference between a cold and flu?

Also not easy because the symptoms (blocked nose, sore throat, headaches, cough, sneezing, temperature, muscle ache, tiredness) are much the same. The NHS says:

  • a cold develops gradually over one or two days and you're most contagious during the early stages when you have a runny nose and sore throat. You should begin to feel better after a few days but some colds can last up to two weeks.
  • Flu usually comes on much more quickly than a cold, and symptoms appear one to three days after infection. You should begin to feel better within a week or so, but you may feel tired for much longer.

If in doubt, call 111.

Dont forget that the groups of people at most risk of the complications from flu (such as pneumonia and bronchitis) can have a free flu vaccination. These groups include people who:

  • are over 65
  • have serious heart or chest complaints, including asthma
  • have serious kidney disease or liver disease
  • have diabetes
  • have lowered immunity
  • have had a stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
What about ‘man flu’?

Well, for centuries studies have shown that female mice have better immune responses than males.

More recently, Dr Kyle Sue of Memorial University, Newfoundland in Canada, found some evidence that adult men have a higher risk of hospital admission and have higher rates of flu-related death compared with women in the same age groups. There is also evidence of men suffering more from ‘viral respiratory illness’ (ie colds and flu) than women because they have a less robust immune system.

Dr Sue concludes that the idea behind ‘man flu’ that men are making a fuss about nothing may be unfair. She said: ‘men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women.’

Now give me a hot toddy.

Date published 09/01/18
Date of last review 09/01/18
Date of next review 09/01/21


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