Are you fed up of suffering with a cough, cold, flu or
sore throat? to find out what you can do
to treat yourself better.

48% of the population visit their doctor expecting antibiotics for cold and
flu, which won’t work

1 in 5 people unnecessarily visit their GP for cold and flu symptoms

45% of people wrongly think antibiotics can treat winter ailments
like cold and flu

Antibiotics do not work on most cold and flu symptoms so avoid
a wasted trip to the GP and treat yourself better this winter.

How long can I expect my cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis and middle ear infection symptoms to last?
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  • Your day by day guide to cold and flu symptoms and self-treatment.

    Scroll across to find out what symptoms
    to expect each day and for advice on
    what you can do to treat yourself without
    going to see the GP

    The majority of cold and flu symptoms will be over in 4-5 days but complete recovery can take up to 10 days and sometimes longer. There is no ‘cure’ but you can treat the symptoms with some practical self-help measures and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines (sold without a prescription) which don’t require a trip to your GP. Your pharmacist can advise on what OTC medicines are best for you.

    If you have flu, this is the time when you will have a high temperature and symptoms that come on quickly. You will be shivering with a headache, muscle aches in your back and legs and you may feel dizzy. The high temperature should go down within 48 hours. If you have a cold, this is the incubation stage (the time between catching an infection and symptoms appearing) meaning there are no symptoms to tell you that you have contracted a cold virus.

    What you can do:

    • Get plenty of rest, preferably in bed.

    • Drink plenty of fluids.

    • You could take paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce
      your temperature and ease aches and pains.

    40% of people
    who visit a GP for cold
    and flu go too early!

    What's happening
    to your body?

    A strong sneeze can travel the length of a bus or tube
    carriage and you may have picked up your cold or flu
    by inhaling infected droplets from someone else’s
    sneeze in this kind of environment. The virus contained
    in those droplets has got past your body’s first line of
    defence – the hairs and mucus in the nose, which traps
    them – or you have introduced them by touching your
    nose or eyes after being in contact with someone with
    a cold or flu. The virus is taking over your cells and using
    them to reproduce by the million.

    When to seek medical advice.
    Most cold and flu symptoms can be treated without a trip to your GP. If you
    display any warning signs, seek medical advice.

    Find your nearest pharmacy...

  • If you have flu, your temperature should be dropping now and from this stage on your symptoms will be similar to those you would get with a cold. If you have a cold, the first signs appear on day 2 with a tickle or soreness in the nose and/or throat and sometimes in the eyes. The sore throat gets worse and a dry cough might start. You start sneezing and your nose starts to run. Usually with a cold, adults do not get a high temperature, although children may do.

    60% of antibiotic prescriptions in general practice are for upper respiratory infections!

    What's happening to your body?

    Cells in the nose and throat release chemicals to defend
    you against the virus. These chemicals irritate the cells and cause
    itchiness and soreness and make you sneeze. By now a large
    number of cells have been killed off by the virus and the nose
    produces a watery mucus to wash them out. Mounting the
    counter-attack against the virus takes a lot out of you, and you
    will feel tired and unwell.

    When to seek medical advice.
    Most cold and flu symptoms can be treated without a trip to your GP. If you display any warning signs, seek medical advice.

    What you can do:

    • It’s probably best to stay at home to avoid spreading
      your cold to others.

    • Take it easy and rest if possible.

    • Keep warm and keep the atmosphere moist.

    • Drink plenty of fluids, as you will lose a lot through
      mucus production and possibly perspiration.

    • You could take paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce
      your temperature.

    • If your throat is very sore take a cough lozenge or
      use a spray.

    • Avoid smoking, as it will further irritate the throat and
      the lining of the nose.

    Find your nearest pharmacy...

  • The discharge from the nose may change from clear and watery to
    thicker and yellowish in colour. Your nose starts to feel very stuffy
    and blocked up, and you might get pain in the forehead and around
    and behind the eyes. If the infection is a really nasty one adults may
    still have a slight fever.

    What you can do:

    • Continue to drink plenty of fluids.

    • You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen
      if you still have a temperature.

    • Use steam inhalations to make the mucus
      in your nose and chest more liquid and help
      get rid of it.

    • A cough is a normal function of the body as
      it tries to get rid of phlegm. It can be relieved
      with a cool drink but if it continues to be
      troublesome, a range of cough mixtures
      are available.

    • Sleep with your head on a high pillow if
      your nose is stuffed up at night.

    78% of people with flu symptoms visit their GP too early!

    What's happening to your body?

    Catarrh is a mixture of mucus and white blood cells produced to fight off infections. It drips from the nasal passage into the throat causing a phlegmy, chesty cough as the body tries to get rid of the catarrh. The tissues in the windpipe also get congested, so that air passes through less easily and you could become wheezy.

    When to seek medical advice.
    Most cold and flu symptoms can be treated without a trip to your GP. If you display any warning signs, seek medical advice.

    Find your nearest pharmacy...


  • Symptoms usually start to subside
    but can last two weeks, sometimes
    a bit longer. Understanding this
    time frame, coupled with knowing
    what warning signs to look out for
    should stop unnecessary visits to
    your GP.


    When to seek medical advice.
    Most cold and flu symptoms can be treated without a trip to your GP. If you display any warning signs, seek medical advice.

    What's happening to your body?

    The virus has been defeated. It is now just a matter of time until things get back to normal. But it may be a couple of weeks until the catarrh has all gone, the coughing stops and the swollen tissues in the nose and chest shrink down again.

    What you can do:

    • Go back to your normal activities.

    • Keep on with medication if you need to,
      until the symptoms have gone completely.

    The majority of people don’t
    know how long cold and flu
    symptoms should last and visit
    the GP when they shouldn’t

    Find your nearest pharmacy...

Warning Signs

Seek medical advice by speaking to or seeing a
doctor if you notice any of the following warning
signs, which may suggest that your symptoms
could possibly be caused by a more serious
underlying condition or may require medical
attention.

Sore Throat

High fever - You have a persistent high temperature over 38oC for more than 3 days that does not come down even if you take ibruprofen and/or paracetamol

Glandular fever - A sore throat that doesn’t get better within 10 to 14 days or that gets worse rather than better may suggest glandular fever

Breathing - You find it hard to breathe in, and your throat feels like it’s closing up

Drooling and swallowing - You’re drooling and find it difficult to swallow - this is an emergency!

Severity - Your pain is severe and does not respond to over the counter pain killers

Voice changes - Your voice becomes muffled

Fluid intake - You find it difficult to drink enough fluids and become dehydrated

Effect on day to day life - Your symptoms are so bad that they severely affect your quality of life and prevent you from functioning normally

HIV/AIDS or other causes of reduced immunity - If you suffer from a sore throat and have a deficient immune system because, for example, you have HIV/AIDS, or you take certain medication (such as chemotherapy, high dose steroids, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or a drug called carbimazole), you should seek medical advice if you develop a sore throat

Earache (otitis media/middle
ear infection)

High fever - Your child has a body temperature of over 38°C (if between the ages of 0-3 months), or over 39°C (if between the ages of 3-6 months)

Duration - You or your child’s symptoms are severe and you do not see any improvements after 24 hours

Fluid - You notice fluid leaking from the ear

Additional symptoms - Your child shows additional symptoms, such as being sick, feeling dizzy, and/or they have a stiff neck, a rash, slurred speech, confusion, seizures (fits), and/or are sensitive to light

Cough

Coughing up blood - You cough up blood for no obvious reason

Duration - Your cough is getting no better within 3 to 4 weeks

Chest or shoulder pain - In addition to your cough, you have chest and/or shoulder pain

Breathlessness - You find it difficult to breathe

Weight loss - You’re losing weight for no apparent reason over a period of 6 weeks or more

Voice changes - Your voice becomes hoarse for longer than 3 weeks, and the hoarseness persists after the cough has settled

New lumps or swellings - You notice new swellings anywhere in the neck or above the collarbones

Cold and Flu


High fever - You have a high temperature above 39°C that does not come down even if you take ibuprofen and/or paracetamol

Effect on day to day life - You are confused or disorientated

Pain in chest - You notice a sharp pain in your chest

Breathing - You are experiencing difficulty in breathing

Fluids - You cough up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)

Swollen glands - You notice a swelling of the glands in your neck and/or armpits

Duration - Your symptoms last longer than 3 weeks

Sinusitis


High fever - You have a persistent high temperature of over 39°C that does not come down even if you take ibuprofen and/or paracetamol

Effect on day to day life - You feel really unwell and/or you are confused or disorientated

Severe pain - You suffer severe pain or discomfort in your face

Discharge from the nose - Your nose produces lots of thick green/yellow fluid

Other medical conditions - If you suffer from other conditions, you may be at high risk of complications if you develop sinusitis

Expert Advice

Dr Rob Hicks, GP

When should I visit a doctor if I have cold and flu symptoms?

Dr Rob Hicks offers some guidance on how long cold and flu symptoms should last for, what symptoms to expect, what you can do to treat yourself better and when you need to see a doctor.

About Dr Rob Hicks

Dr Rob Hicks is a practising GP based in Greater London. He is also a medical consultant and contributor to a number of national radio and TV stations, newspapers and magazines and online health sites.

Raj Patel, Pharmacist

What can I do to treat myself better for cold and flu symptoms without going to see my doctor?

Raj Patel provides you with advice on what you can do at home to treat a cough, cold, flu or sore throat, which types of medicines will be most effective and who should be your first port of call if you want further medical advice.

About Raj Patel

Raj Patel is Superintendent Pharmacist of Mount Elgon Pharmacy based in London. He is also a National Pharmacy Association Board Member and Chairman of Merton, Sutton & Wandsworth Local Pharmaceutical Committee.

Frequently Asked
Questions

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  • 1. How long can I expect my cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis and middle ear infection symptoms to last?

    Cold – 1.5 weeks
    Flu - 2 weeks
    Cough – 3 weeks
    Sore throat – 1 week
    Sinusitis – 2.5 weeks
    Middle ear infection – 4 days
    Download more information here

    2. Should I go to the doctor or get an antibiotic for winter symptoms such as a cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis and middle ear infection?

    These symptoms are caused by viruses. Antibiotics only work against bacteria so they will not work for these symptoms.

    3.When should I see a doctor or seek medical advice if I have winter symptoms?

    Most cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis and middle ear infection symptoms get better by themselves, but in a few cases when the symptoms are severe you should see the doctor.

    4. Are over-the-counter medicines really effective for winter symptoms such as a cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis and middle ear infection?

    There is no “cure” for these symptoms, but over the counter medicines work to relieve symptoms and make you feel more comfortable while your body fights the virus.

    5. Can my pharmacist recommend what medicines are best for my symptoms?

    Pharmacists are experts on medicines and can help you choose the medicine that will work best for your symptoms. The pharmacist can also help you assess your symptoms and advise you whether you need to see a doctor.

  • 6. Should I stay at home if I have a cold, flu, cough, sore throat, sinusitis or middle ear infection?

    Listen to your body and if you are tired get some rest until you feel better. Treat your symptoms to feel more comfortable. You will usually know when you are well enough to return to normal activities.

    7. What’s the difference between a virus and bacteria?

    Some bacteria, such as gut bacteria, are essential for good health. When they do cause infections they are usually localised and antibiotics can kill them. Viruses are parasites whose only purpose is to multiply. No medicine kills a virus. You have to wait for your body’s natural processes to isolate and destroy a virus.

    8. What should I do if my child has a fever?

    It is normal for your child to have a fever if they are fighting an infection and fever does not harm your child. However, you can help your child by giving them Paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen. Sometimes sponging your child with cold water could cause them to shiver and further increase their temperature, but luke warm water may help a little. Some younger children may have a seizure as a result of a fever. If this happens, try not to panic and put your child in the recovery position.

    If your child has not had a fit before and it does not pass quickly it is best to call an ambulance. As fevers are normally caused by viruses, antibiotics are not normally effective in treating them. For further information and advice, download the ‘When should I worry’ leaflet.

    9. What shall I do if my child has a cough, cold, sore throat or earache?

    A child’s immune system is very powerful and most common infections, such as a cough, cold, sore throat and/or earache, will clear up by itself. However, there are some things you can do to assist your child in their recovery, such as ensuring your child has plenty of rest, giving them healthy food and ensuring they are well hydrated by giving them plenty to drink. This will also help break up any phlegm and will lubricate their throat if it is sore. Paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen can also help to relieve pain and/or fever, although make sure you do not give more than the maximum dose. As most common infections are caused by viruses, antibiotics are not normally effective and by giving your child antibiotics, it can make the bacteria resistant to them meaning they will no longer work against the bacteria.

    Only children with signs of more serious illness generally need to be seen by a doctor or nurse. These signs include: excessive drowsiness, difficulty breathing or rapid breathing, cold or discoloured hands and/or feet with warm body, abnormal pains in arms and/or legs, abnormal colour (pale or blue), signs of meningitis. For further information and advice, download the ‘When should I worry’ leaflet.

Media Centre

For more information please contact the
Treat Yourself Better Press Office at Red Door Communications

References