Ever heard of the £50 test? It goes like this: you are in bed with a streaming nose, stuffy head and throat like sandpaper. There’s a £50 note in your garden. Do you get up to get it despite feeling wretched? If you do - you have a cold, if you don’t - it’s flu.
The flu and a cold are not the same. Both are highly infectious but are caused by different groups of viruses. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe and longer lasting, causing headache, fever, aches, pains and tiredness. While a cold is a mild viral infection of the upper airways causing a runny, stuffy nose, sneezing, a sore throat and cough.
Flu and colds occur if you breathe in or touch a surface (and then touch your nose or mouth) which is contaminated with flu or cold virus. These viruses are contained in tiny droplets that spread from the mouth or nose when a person coughs or sneezes.
How to treat a cold or flu
- Drink plenty to replenish fluids lost due to sweating and a runny nose.
- Get lots of rest (including two or three days bed-rest for flu).
- Eat healthily taking in plenty of fresh fruit and veg.
- Sit over a hot bowl of water with a towel over your head and breathe deeply (you can add oil like menthol) to loosen mucus and clear your nose.
- Take decongestant medicines such as pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine and xylometazoline to reduce inflammation in your nose and sinuses making it easier to breathe.
- Gargle with salt water or suck a throat lozenge to relieve sore throat symptoms.
- Use over-the-counter cold medicine or take painkillers such as ibuprofen, paracetamol or aspirin to lower high temperatures and relieve aches. Follow the instructions carefully to avoid doubling-up on medicines.
- Cough remedy containing an expectorant such as guaifenesin to remove mucus from the airways, or those containing an antitussive such as dextromethorphan for a dry tickly cough.
- For children, apply a vapour rub to their chest or back or use nasal saline drops or a spray to help them breathe more easily. If using painkillers ensure they are suitable for kids.
- Patients with some pre-existing medical conditions may be prescribed antiviral medication such as tamiflu to prevent the flu virus from multiplying in their body.
- At-risk patients (such as those over 65) will be offered a flu-jab at the start of the flu season to help prevent flu developing in the first place.
- The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has guidelines on who should be offered antivirals and flu vaccines.