Atishoo, a tissue

PUBLISHED: 10:40 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 10:40 02 March 2015

Colds and flu can make us feel pretty unwell

Colds and flu can make us feel pretty unwell


Our health columnist Dr Matt Piccaver, a GP based in East Anglia who has worked in many areas and specialities, tackles the frustrating common cold.

At the time of writing, I am ill. We’re not talking life-threatening, at least I hope not. In fact I feel almost fraudulent in saying I’m ill. I have a cold. An occupational hazard in my profession; I have a sore throat, and a runny nose. Okay, so not terminal, but none the less, colds and flu can make us feel pretty unwell. That said, do we really need to see a doctor with a cold?

The common cold is a self-limiting, viral infection. There is a considerable number of viruses that cause the common cold. The most common is rhinovirus. Colds are spread through close physical contact or via contaminated surfaces. They infect us via our nose, and mouth, and in some cases eyes. Within a few days we start to develop a sore throat, shortly followed by a runny or blocked nose. We may sneeze. In a small number of cases we may develop a temperature, but this is less common in adults than in children. Adults can expect anywhere between two and four colds a year, and children as many as 10 or 12.

Most people with a cold can expect to get better within 10 days. Some may linger for up to three weeks. Treatment consists of nothing more than time, fluids, and the occasional paracetamol or ibuprofen. There is little value in cough syrup, but some cold and flu rememdies may make you feel a little better. Colds do not get better with antibiotics. There is no cure or vaccine for the common cold.

When should we come to the doctor? I would argue that most people will shrug off a cold with ease. But if you have underlying disease of the lungs or heart, or a condition such as diabetes, you may wish to be seen. In general terms, see a doctor if the following apply to you:

1 A fever of more than 38C.

2 Poor fluid and food intake.

3 Coughing up blood.

4. You’re been unwell for more than three weeks.

5 You have an underlying long-term condition, such as heart disease, lung diseases, or neurological conditions.

6 You feel you might be developing a complication of the common cold, such as an ear infection or sinusitis.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so if in doubt, seek advice. In the early stages, your pharmacist will be able to help you. If you get sicker, see your doctor.

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