So what are the symptoms of a common cold and the signs you do – or don’t – need antibiotics? Clue: you probably don’t. Here’s a doctor’s guide
Around any Tube or office right now, the chances are there is someone coughing, sniffling, sneezing or complaining of a sore throat – or one at home with all four symptoms and more.
But while expert bodies such as Public Health England have warned that the over-use of antibiotics could lead to a staggering 10 million deaths by 2050, an eye-watering 38 per cent of us still demand them from our doctors for cough, flu, throat, chest, ear or sinus infections.
However, up to nine out of ten cases of such symptoms are in fact a common cold caused by a viral, as opposed to a bacterial, infection and can’t be fixed by antibiotics anyway, says Dr Nagete Boukhezra, London GP and clinical director at the Walk-In GP, London Doctors Clinic.
Common cold symptom #1: SORE THROAT
A staggering 1.2 million people visit their doctor with a sore throat in the UK each year, but nine in ten of those will be caused by viruses.
In fact, sore throats are also the largest contributor to inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in England – amounting to almost a quarter of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.
Sometimes bacterial infections can come with white spots on the back of the throat. ‘But other medical conditions can also lead to white spots on the throat, such as a tonsil stone or oral thrush,’ says Dr Boukhezra.
How to treat: ‘Over the counter painkillers can ease your sore throat pain,’ says Dr Boukhezra. ‘Try gargling with salty water to alleviate symptoms and drink tea or hot water with honey and lemon. It might be helpful for your sore throat to have cool soft food and, in moderation, treat yourself with iced lollies.’
A staggering 1.2 million people visit their doctor with a sore throat in the UK each year
Sore throat lozenges remedies like Strepsils can help to alleviate the symptoms of a sore throat. Or you could try Strefen (£4.95 from pharmacies) which contains an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling and provide fast relief.
Find out for sure if you need antibiotics: The makers of Strepsils and Strefen are partnering with Superdrug Pharmacies to provide a quick, free sore throat consultation service. The free ten-minute consultation service consists of a full examination which may include a swab test to identify whether your sore throat is bacterial and therefore whether antibiotics are needed.
Common cold symptom #2: HEADACHE
‘When you have a cold, the sinus cavities become inflamed,’ says Dr Boukhezra. ‘The swelling from the inflammation leads to an elevation of the pressure behind the eyes, in the forehead and cheeks which leads to a headache.’
Sometimes if you have a fever too, this can cause dehydration, which subsequently causes headaches, he explains.
How to treat: ‘Stay hydrated with plenty of fluids, says Dr Khodardi. ‘Of course over the counter painkillers will help, as will anything that will help unblock the nose [see below] to help relieve the pressure.’
One super-simple OTC remedy that doesn’t involve taking any drugs is a stick called 4Head (£3.69 from pharmacies) which you simply rub on your temples. It works really fast – we’re all addicted at Healthista HQ – because it contains levomenthol and is clinically proven to relieve headache.
Common cold symptom #3: RUNNY OR BLOCKED NOSE
As your body fights the cold it produces excess nasal mucous, leading your nasal passages to become irritated and inflamed.
How to treat: ‘Drinking plenty of fluids will help to thin the mucus and to drain it faster, as will using a humidifier to increase the air moisture in your home,’ Dr Boukhezra recommends.
‘There is some evidence to suggest steam inhalations can help reduce the congestion and saline sprays, which are completely harmless can soothe the nose and help you to breathe.’
Try adding a few drops of Olbas Oil (£4.99 from pharmacies) to boiling water and inhaling for ten minutes – this really works to help loosen mucus – just have the tissues handy.
To help soothe or unblock the nose or even cleanse bugs from the nose, Sterimar Nasal Spray (£4.99 from pharmacies) works a treat.
Common cold symptom #3: COUGH
‘Coughing is a normal reflex your body does to clear your airways,’ Dr Boukhezra asserts. ‘A cough can actually last a few weeks after the virus has passed.’
How to treat: ‘Hot lemon and honey can help ease the symptoms,’ says Dr Boukhezra. ‘Drink plenty of fluids to help thin the mucus. While cough medicine can help you cough less, there’s little evidence it will make the cough go away faster.’
Taking steamy showers can also help break up mucus trapped in the chest or nasal membranes.
Always seek medical advice if your cough lasts more than three weeks.
Common cold symptom #4: FEVER
‘Fever is usually very slight for an adult during a cold,’ says Dr Boukhezra. A sudden fever of over 38 degrees in adults is usually a sign of a flu (and still won’t need antibiotics).
How to treat: You can lower your fever with paracetamol and drinking plenty of fluids to help avoid dehydration. Of course, there is always the cool, damp washcloth on your forehead trick – thanks mum – some people use it on theirs underarms and wrists as well.
For fever in children, especially if they are six months old or under, the NHS recommends specific measures to ensure your baby is safe.
Common cold symptom #5: ACHES AND PAINS
While sudden or excessive aches and pains accompanied by chills and fever can signal a flu, a general feeling of aching will often accompany a cold and comes as a response to the inflammation your body will experience as your immune system fights the infection.
How to treat: ‘Make sure you allow the body time to repair and recuperate,’ says Dr Boukhezra. ‘Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen can reduce the pain and inflammation. You can also relax your muscles and ease tension by having a warm bath.’ To really help relax and ease pain, add a cup of magnesium salts such as Magnesium Flakes from BetterYou (£9.95 from Healthista Shop).
Common cold symptom #6: DIZZINESS
‘Dizziness is a vague term that can include light-headedness and vertigo and there can be many causes,’ says Dr Boukhezra. ‘It can sometimes be a sign of an ear infection which can often occur after a common cold.’
How to treat: If you experience symptoms of dizziness it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Common cold symptom #7: SNEEZING
Sneezing can be a symptom of a cold due to an irritation of the mucous membranes developing as the cold progresses.
How to treat: Other than the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ rule of using tissues (because germs can live for several hours on tissues) – there’s little you can do stop sneezing.
Indeed, ‘There is no evidence that taking antihistamines can be effective for symptoms of a common cold and they, in fact, cause adverse effects,’ says Dr Boukhezra.
What’s the difference between cold and flu?
Both colds and flu are viral illnesses, says Dr Boukhezra. While hundreds of different viruses can cause a cold, there are only three strains of the influenza virus. ‘Often a flu will start with an abrupt onset of symptoms that are much more intense and severe than those of a cold, sometimes with high fever, chills, muscle and body aches and exhaustion.
‘A flu may indeed last longer than a regular cold which usually resolves within a week or two – but this still won’t mean you need antibiotics as flus are viral.’
The best protection against flu is the flu vaccine, which certain risk groups are able to get for free, so do check if you are eligible.
What do if your symptoms linger
If you have a severe sore throat or cold always see your pharmacist first. Pharmacists can offer advice and over-the-counter medicines for the majority of minor ailments such as colds and sore throats, however if your symptoms persist or worsen see your GP.
What are the signs you DO need antibiotics?
This will depend, says Dr Boukhezra. ‘Signs the GP will look for include a high fever, thick, opaque nasal discharge and facial pain, while also taking into account the general state of your health and the length of symptoms.
‘While up to 90 per cent of colds are viral and will resolve themselves with no antibiotics, some viral infections can turn into a bacterial infection,’ Dr Boukhezra explains.
‘If you have a weakened immune system, perhaps because of stress or a chronic medical condition such as asthma, you’re more at risk of a viral infection turning into a bacterial infection.’
Contact your GP or NHS 111 if….
– You have a persistent fever or you develop a facial pain, an ear pain, a difficulty to swallow or a shortness of breath for example. These could indicate complications due to a secondary bacterial infection.
– You suffer from a chronic medical condition (asthma, COPD, diabetes…) or if you are under treatment that can affect your immune system (chemotherapy), you are more at risk of developing complications. Younger children and older adults are also at a higher risk. If you have any concerns contact your GP.
– Your symptoms are not improving after 10 days or if they get suddenly worse.
The sore throat swab service from the makers of Strepsils and Strefen is available at 200 Superdrug stores nationwide until next Spring. Find out more information about the swab service here.
Find out more about the London Doctors Clinic here.