ASK THE PHARMACIST: When chicken soup isn’t enough

Q: I have four teenage daughters and two aging parents who are prone to awful coughs at this time of year. I often have trouble figuring out if their symptoms are just the common cold or a serious flu virus. How can I tell the difference, and what’s the best over-the-counter drug to treat their symptoms?

A: Cold and flu season affects everyone, and most children and adults are likely to experience at least one cold each year. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for a cold or flu virus; the infection must simply run its course. However, there are a number of things you can do to help treat the symptoms.

It’s important to know exactly what you’re dealing with before taking any medication because different drugs treat different symptoms. The wrong choice could make symptoms worse. Patients are often surprised to find out how their prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medications may be affecting each other. If you’re taking multiple medications, it’s best to speak with a pharmacist because he or she will have an in-depth knowledge of hundreds of prescription and non-prescription medications, including side effects, interactions with drugs and food, and adverse effects.

Cold and flu symptoms
Colds are caused by up to 200 different strains while the influenza virus, commonly called “the flu” includes three different strains. A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system and usually lasts anywhere from three to seven days with 25 per cent of people experiencing symptoms for up to two weeks. Cold symptoms start gradually, over the course of a few days, and include a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, coughing and possibly a low fever. Regular hand washing with soap and water can help reduce transmission.

The flu is an infectious disease caused by viruses that spread through airborne particles and are transmitted through coughs and sneezes.

Flu symptoms tend to hit more quickly and severely, causing a high fever, body aches, and cough. If someone in your family catches the flu, they’ll likely be much more lethargic and have little desire to move from their bed.

The flu usually lasts around three to seven days, but it could linger for up to two weeks. Fluids and bed rest may speed up the healing process.

While cold and flu symptoms may appear to be similar, the flu is much more serious. Complications from the flu can be life threatening for children ages six to 23 months, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses. If a family member has a temperature of 40 Celsius or higher (104 Fahrenheit), you should make sure they visit a doctor.

Health Canada recommends everyone take preventative action against the flu by receiving an annual flu shot. Ontarians no longer need to make an appointment to receive a flu shot. Pharmacies are now a common location for flu shot clinics.

Whether you’re treating your aging parents or teenage daughter, a pharmacist can help you find the most appropriate medication and offer counsel on the safe and appropriate use of drugs. Since antibiotics are ineffective against the common cold; ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help alleviate some symptoms such as pain or fever.

When it comes to children, there is no evidence that cough and cold medicines work in patients under 12, so stick to a fever reducer, if necessary. A humidifier can also help relieve nasal or lung congestion.

ASK THE PHARMACIST is an information series produced for by the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association. Questions are submitted to, and answered by, one or more members of the Association. Please submit your question by email to [email protected].

For more information about the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association, and the growing role pharmacists are playing in the health care system, visit

Note: All answers are intended to provide general guidance on health questions, and are not intended to provide diagnosis of specific medical conditions or recommendations for treatment, or to substitute for medical advice or treatment.