Having a cold is never fun. What starts as a telltale tickle in the back of your throat can turn into several weeks’ worth of debilitating symptoms that can spread through your family like wildfire.
“Symptoms typically start two or three days after you’ve been exposed to a cold virus, of which there are many,'”says GP Dr Emma Pooley from BMI The Park Hospital in Nottingham. “Typical symptoms are a sore throat, blocked or runny nose, a cough and sneezing.”
If you or other members of your family are suffering with the symptoms of a cold, there are simple steps you can take to look after yourselves at home without a trip to your GP. The new ‘Stay Well’ campaign from the NHS is urging more people – especially parents with young children – to use their pharmacy first in a move which could help free up GP time for sicker patients and help save the NHS around £850 million each year. Dr Pooley adds:
“Ask your pharmacist for advice on the best cold remedies to help relieve your symptoms – they won’t help you get better faster but will help you feel more comfortable as you recover.”
Colds: What you need to know
1. Can I go to the gym when I have a cold?
“When you have a cold, your immune system is already activated to fight the infection, so doing strenuous exercise puts your body under additional stress,” says Dr Pooley. “In my opinion, it’s better to rest until you feel able to work out properly again, otherwise you run the risk of prolonging your illness and sabotaging your training sessions further. Listen to your body. If you feel tired, are having trouble breathing and generally are lacking in energy, it’s probably better to give the gym a miss.”
A gentle walk in the fresh air is fine, as long as you feel up to it, says Dr Edward Gaynor from Bupa. “You can’t catch a cold by being cold but you should certainly wrap up warm if you do go out,” he continues. “It’s generally not wise to do anything more strenuous – you’ll already be dehydrated, tired and achy, and may be having problems breathing. Exercise will make all of those symptoms worse.”
2. Can I drink alcohol when I have a cold?
“Alcohol disrupts sleep, which is essential for your body to make a full recovery, and is also best avoided with some over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies,” says Dr Pooley. “My overall opinion would be that it’s best not to drink alcohol when you have a cold. Instead, eat healthy food, drink lots of fluids and rest. If you want a dash of whiskey in your hot toddy, it’s not the end of the world but you’ll probably recover quicker without it.” Dr Gaynor agrees.
“My view is that when I have a cold I don’t want to do anything that might prolong it, and alcohol will do that, so I’d avoid it for that reason.”
3. Can I really take time off work with a cold?
“People do feel guilty about taking time off work with ‘just’ a cold, but you’re unlikely to be productive if you’re tired and don’t feel well, plus you’re likely to be highly contagious in the early stage,” says Dr Gaynor. “If you can rest, do.”
“My advice here is to use your common sense,” says Dr Pooley. “If you’re running a high temperature, feel exhausted and can barely get out of bed, you’re probably in no fit state to go to work. If, however, you’re past the sneezing and coughing phase and feel well enough to go in, follow best practice in terms of hygiene advice: cough or sneeze into a tissue rather than your hand, and cough into the crook of your elbow to prevent germs from spreading from your hands to other surfaces.
“Get a gel hand sanitiser, wash your hands often and thoroughly and use disposable paper towels to dry then with. Remember, though, that you’ll recover faster if you rest properly, and there’s less risk of your cold developing into something nasty like a chest infection if you take the time you need. You don’t want to go back only to find yourself floored by the next virus doing the rounds two weeks later.”
4. Is it irresponsible to go to a party/children’s party with a cold?
“Don’t go to a party or children’s party if you’re still coughing and sneezing,” says Dr Pooley. “You’ll still be infectious at this stage so stay away, especially if very little babies will be there. If you’re over the worst and the cold is at the final stages it’s probably OK, but check with the parent first.”
5. When is a cold actually flu?
“Flu is caused by a completely different virus to those that cause colds,” says Dr Pooley. “The culprit is the influenza virus – strains A and B specifically. Flu is a much more serious illness that can have you bed-bound for several days with a high temperature (38C+), chills, headache, a runny nose and muscles aches and pains.
Flu symptoms come on quickly (colds take longer to develop) so if you sense it’s more than a cold, you can see your GP for prescription drugs that help to reduce the severity of the symptoms – but these are only effective if taken within 48 hours of initial symptoms coming on.”
Dr Gaynor agrees that flu needs to be taken seriously. “It can make you feel awful,” he says. “If you have an underlying illness, are over 65 or suspect a child under three years old has flu, get medical advice. Otherwise, talk to your pharmacist about the best medicine to take to help reduce the symptoms while you recover. Don’t forget to see if you’re eligible for the flu jab – see NHS Choices for the current criteria.”