Unfortunately, a quick look outside seems to indicate that the ‘Indian summer’ that we’ve been enjoying is finally coming to an end. Cold, wet weather has returned; the wind is beginning to howl and instead of mowing the lawn we’ve to brush up fallen leaves. With this changing of seasons we tend to think of the dreaded common cold.
What exactly is ‘The Cold’ and why is it so common at this time of year?
The common cold is a mild viral infection of the upper airways - including your nose, throat and sinuses.
Symptoms of the common cold include firstly a sore throat, followed by a blocked/stuffy nose (nasal congestion) which is caused by a build-up of mucus (known as catarrh). You may also experience sneezing, nasal pain, and a runny nose - which is usually clear at the beginning and then becomes thicker as the days go on.
Commonly, you’ll also experience coughing and general feeling of being unwell.
Less common symptoms may include a mild temperature/fever of 38-39C, headache and loss of taste and/or smell.
A headache that worsens with coughing, sneezing and bending over can suggest sinus complications.
In adults and older children, the cold will usually last for about a week; however for some adults and younger children can last up to two weeks. If your symptoms don’t improve after 10-14 days we recommend that you speak with your pharmacist or doctor.
How do I catch the Cold?
The cold virus enters your body through your throat, nose and sometimes through your eyes. It’s carried by micro-droplets of mucus that may be on door knobs or other surfaces, and on your hands.
You are likely to catch the cold if you touch these areas where mucus droplets have settled, and then touch your nose or rub your eyes. Alternatively, you may breathe in micro-droplets of mucus from other people’s cough and sneezes – if they’re infected with the cold virus, this can then get into your nose and throat.
For this reason, good hygiene - including washing your hands frequently, using disposable tissues, and cleaning surfaces regularly - can significantly help to reduce the chances of you and your family catching the cold.
Nasal and sinus congestion is caused by the membranes which line the nose becoming inflamed and irritated. It involves the presence of excess mucus.
This results in your airways becoming narrower and blocked by this mucus, which can affect your sense of taste and smell. It can also impact on your breathing, making it difficult to sleep.
Symptoms may also include a constant throbbing facial pain, with the face being tender to the touch.
Unfortunately, there is no ‘cure’ for a cold, although the symptoms can be relieved by taking over-the-counter medication including paracetamol which will reduce pain and temperature, or ibuprofen as an alternative. Saline nose drops can ease nasal stuffiness and steam inhalation can help unblock the nose.
Adequate fluid intake is important when managing the cold and rest.
If you’re a smoker, you are more likely to suffer a prolonged duration of the symptoms. Also, you’re more like to experience some of the more troublesome symptoms. If you are interested in seeking help to stop smoking, you can speak to your pharmacist about their Smoking Cessation programme.
Vitamin C can reduce the duration of cold symptoms; however, long term supplementation does not appear to prevent colds.
Throat sprays and lozenges can help for a sore throat.
There are treatments available from your local pharmacy for nasal congestion, including decongestants which are available as nasal sprays, in tablet form, and even as a hot drink! Certain decongestants will also include pain relief and so we recommend that you read the instruction leaflet thoroughly before taking any medication, and speaking with your pharmacist if you’re in any doubt.
Your pharmacist can advise you on the most appropriate medication to relieve your symptoms. They can also give you advice on which products are appropriate for children and for people with existing medical conditions.
If you are currently taking any other medication, it is advised that you speak with your pharmacist to ensure that any additional medication you intend to take will not interact with what you are presently taking, and to ensure that you will not be taking an overdose of any drug. Do this before you take any additional medication.
Most of us will experience a sore throat at least two or three times each year. They are more common among children and teenagers, because young people have not built up an immunity against many of the viruses and bacteria that can cause sore throats.
They are usually caused by an infection in the throat.
A soreness in the throat may be the only symptom, however other common symptoms that you may also experience include a hoarse voice, mild cough, fever, or headache. You may experience a feeling of sickness, feel tired, and the glands in your neck may swell. It may be painful for you to swallow.
The soreness typically gets worse over 2-3 days and then usually gradually goes within a week.
There are simple treatments that you can buy which can ease symptoms, until the sore throat goes. Usually, you would only need to see a doctor if symptoms are severe, unusual, or if they do not ease within 3-4 days.
Antibiotics are not usually required, as most throat and tonsil infections are caused by viruses. Without tests, it is usually not possible to tell if it is a viral or bacterial infection. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but do not kill viruses – as a result an antibiotic might be ineffective anyway!
Your immune system usually clears these infections within a few days, whether it’s caused by a virus or bacteria. Your doctor may recommend an antibiotic if the infection is severe, if it is not easing after a few days, or if your immune system is not working properly.
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils, which are located at the back of the mouth. Symptoms are similar to a sore throat, but may be more severe. In particular, the associated fever and the ‘generally feeling unwell’ symptoms tend to be worse.
You may be able to see some pus which looks like white spots on the enlarged red tonsils.
Treatments available for sore throats and tonsillitis include simple pain killers. A simple painkiller such as Paracetamol or Ibuprofen will ease pain, headache, and fever. To keep your symptoms to a minimum, it is best to take a dose at regular intervals.
Paracetamol should be taken no more than four times a day, and Ibuprofen no more than three times a day, until the symptoms ease. Some people with certain conditions may not be able to take Ibuprofen, so seek advice from your pharmacist before taking any medication – even if it’s something simple that you can buy over-the-counter.
There are a large range of gargles, lozenges, and sprays available to buy at pharmacies, and these should help to soothe a sore throat. Many of these contain an antiseptic and/or an anaesthetic agent.
It can be tempting not to drink too much liquid if it is painful to swallow. You may become mildly dehydrated if you don't drink much, particularly if you also have a fever. It is very important to drink plenty of fluids.
When to Seek Medical Attention
You should seek urgent medical attention if you develop difficulty in breathing, difficulty swallowing saliva, difficulty opening your mouth, severe pain or a persistent high temperature.
For other symptoms, seek advice from your pharmacist who will advise on the best over-the-counter medication that’s appropriate - depending on your age, symptoms and your medical history.