What to do: Colds and flu

Colds and flu are caused by hundreds of different types of viruses. These infections are highly contagious, passed on by tiny droplets when you cough or sneeze and by hand contact.

You know how it goes. One person sneezes into his hands (without using a tissue), and then touches a surface such as a door knob or subway pole. Another person then touches the same surface and unthinkingly rubs his eye or nose, becoming instantly infected.

And germs thrive in places you might not think of. A study of hotel rooms in the U.S. found that 35 per cent of surfaces including door handles, pens, light switches and TV remote controls harboured the common cold virus. It’s little wonder so many of us are repeatedly infected, especially during cold and flu season.

Common cold or flu?
It can be difficult to know if the reason you’re feeling lousy is because you’ve caught a virus from a common cold or flu. While there are a large number of crossover symptoms, generally speaking, the flu is considered more serious.

Symptoms of the common cold:
• a scratchy, sore throat
• a blocked or runny nose
• a cough
• a general feeling of fatigue

In addition to traditional cold symptoms, people with the flu usually suffer from high fever (hovering above 39ºC or 101°F), chills, intense muscle aches and pains, a loss of appetite and exhaustion. Flu also tends to have a more sudden onset than a cold. Both colds and flu tend to last for about five or six days, although you may recover from a cold more quickly.

Seeking relief
For relief of symptoms, many people look to over the counter medications. But with so many products designed for colds and flu, it can be difficult to know which one is best for you.

While it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication, here’s a general guide for finding over the counter relief for your particular symptom(s).

For sneezing, itchy eyes, runny noses look for products containing antihistamines. These can make you drowsy, however, so you may want to look for a non-drowsy formula.

Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrines, are used to relieve nasal congestion. These come in various forms such as pills or sprays.

For coughs, it’s important to evaluate what kind of cough you have and therefore, what you need. To break up chest congestion and have a more productive cough, choose an expectorant (containing Guaifenesin) which is supposed to thin mucus.

Or if you’re looking to stop a dry, hacking cough, the better choice may be a cough syrup or lozenge that contains a suppressant (Dextromethorphan or DM).

If your cough is coming from a tickle in your throat, a lozenge containing benzocaine and menthol can help to numb your throat.

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) can all reduce fever and aches associated with colds and flu. (But if you’re taking a cold remedy as well, make sure it doesn’t already contain the same ingredient.)

Suffering from multiple symptoms? There are a number of medications that treat more than one symptom. Experts warn, however, not to take medication for symptoms you do not have.

Also be sure to check expiration dates before you buy any product – and read product labels carefully to avoid an accidental overdose.

Help prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses
The best way to prevent colds and flu is also the simplest: Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Here are some other tips to protect yourself and help prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses:

• Cough and sneeze into a tissue, and be sure to wash your hands afterward. (Use an alcohol-based sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water.)
• If you don’t have a tissue on hand, turn your head away from others.
• Need to sneeze suddenly? Bend your arm and sneeze into it.
• Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
• Wash any shared surfaces such as telephones, door handles or computer keyboards frequently. Viruses can live on surfaces for several hours.

Sources: Health Canada, BBC Health, US Food and Drug Administration

Read Health Canada’s Recommendations for the Appropriate Use of Cough and Cold Products in Children.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/Stephen Uber