Cold or flu: Doctor or pharmacist?

Although they have similar symptoms and can be hard to tell apart, flu and common colds are caused by different groups of viruses. Common cold symptoms include a sore throat, dry cough, sneezing and blocked nose and headache. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe and longer lasting. 

When you have flu you’re likely to experience symptoms such as a fever, tiredness, dizziness and general aches and pains in your muscles and joints. 


How are cold & flu symptoms treated? 

If you’re experiencing cold or flu symptoms, there's usually no need to see a GP, as symptoms should clear up within a week. There's no cure for colds or flu, but at-home remedies, such as rest and drinking plenty of fluids, can help to ease discomfort. Over-the-counter medicines, available from pharmacies, may also help and can be considered.


How can my pharmacist help?

Ask your pharmacist for advice on the best treatment options for your symptoms, as they’re trained professionals able to offer advice and treatment for even the most minor health concerns. Colds and flu are extremely common, so your pharmacist will be familiar with your symptoms and able to recommend products and treatments available to help you. 

Your pharmacist may suggest taking paracetamol or another painkiller to help reduce your temperature and ease aches or pains. They may also recommend cough syrup, lozenges for sore throats or decongestants and steam inhalations to relieve blocked noses.

Some pharmacies also offer the flu vaccination service – visit your local pharmacy to find out if this is a service that they provide. The flu jab is designed to help protect against the most common strains of flu each year, but it also provides some protection against other strains you may catch, as it can help to lessen the severity and duration of your illness.


How can you avoid spreading colds & flu?

Good hygiene is very important to stop the spread of colds and flu. Make sure you wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water and avoid touching your face unnecessarily. Once you've used a tissue, bin it immediately. 

If someone close to you has flu or a cold, help them out by running errands for them – not only is rest important for recuperation, but limiting the amount of people they come into contact with can prevent the virus from spreading.


When should you visit a GP for your cold & flu symptoms? 

While a pharmacist can help you to handle most cases of cold and flu, if you’re concerned about your symptoms it’s best to visit a GP for advice. If you have the following symptoms, you should make a doctor's appointment immediately or visit an urgent care centre: 

• A high temperature above 39°C (102.2°F) that doesn’t decrease after taking paracetamol or ibuprofen 
• Sharp chest pains 
• Difficulty breathing 
• Swollen glands in your neck and/or armpits 
• Severe pain or discomfort in your face related to sinusitis
• Severe earache with no improvements after 24 hours 
• If your symptoms last longer than three weeks for cough or cold symptoms, or seven days for flu symptoms


Who is most at risk from colds & flu?

You may also consider contacting your GP if symptoms suddenly get worse or if you have an underlying condition that may be made worse by a cold or flu. Those more at risk of complications from cold and flu symptoms are:

• People with long-term conditions such as diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease 
• People with weakened immune systems, for example those having chemotherapy or with HIV 
• Pregnant women
• People over 65
• Children in certain age groups or with certain long-term medical conditions

If you're in one of these risk groups, you should speak to your GP about getting the free flu vaccination. It protects you against certain common strains of flu, and may lessen the duration and severity of symptoms if you contract another strain.

If you’re experiencing severe cold or flu symptoms or are at a higher risk of experiencing complications, consult your GP or call NHS 111 for advice.


Next steps

• If you’re experiencing cold or flu symptoms, use at-home remedies such as rest and drinking enough fluids 
• Ask your pharmacist which medicines may be most effective for your symptoms
• If symptoms worsen or last longer than three weeks for cough or cold symptoms or seven days for flu symptoms, consult your GP, especially if you’re at a greater risk for developing complications
• Consider getting the flu vaccination, to help protect you against catching flu in the future