Rx for cold and flu season

Colds and influenza (the flu) have similar symptoms that make me feel awful. How can I tell the difference and choose the right medication?

While some of the symptoms overlap, the flu and colds are caused by different viruses. The flu is more serious because it can take longer to recover from and, in rare cases, can lead to complications including pneumonia, bronchitis and even death.

How they’re spread

Various strains of the influenza virus circulate the world year-round. But in Canada, flu season is typically November through April. Colds can happen at any time of the year.

Both illnesses are spread through droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you inhale these droplets or touch your hand to your mouth, nose or eyes after coming into contact with them, you can become ill.

Signs and symptoms

A sudden fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, fatigue and weakness, sore throat and a dry cough are all symptoms of the flu. They can last for up to 10 days and a full recovery may take weeks. If you’ve caught a cold, symptoms last five to 10 days and include congestion, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough, which will be dry at first and may become wet later on with phlegm.

Incidentally, the symptoms of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are similar to those of the flu—fever, cough and general aches and chills. However, if you have SARS, you will also experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you think you have SARS, call your health-care provider for instructions.

An ounce of prevention

The best way to avoid both the flu and colds is to wash your hands frequently. Rinse them under warm water, lather with soap, rub together for at least 10 seconds, rinse and dry with a single-use towel or hand dryer.

You might also consider getting a flu shot. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that all healthy children and adults get vaccinated. The vaccine is different each year and is generally 70 to 90 per cent effective. After you get the shot in your arm, you may experience some soreness, muscle pain—even a fever that lasts about a day. These symptoms are reactions to the shot alone; the vaccine does not contain live viruses, so it can’t cause the flu.

It’s especially important to get the flu shot if you suffer from certain health conditions or if you’re a senior. Go online and visit Health Canada’s website for more information.

Treat yourself

If you do get the flu, stay home. Going out means you risk infecting others. While you’re home resting, drink lots of fluids and take a pain- and fever-reducing medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, as needed. If you have a dry cough, you can use a cough suppressant that contains dextromethorphan, such as Benylin DM or Robitussin DM. See your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within a week.

When it comes to colds, antihistamines such as Chlor-Tripolon and Benadryl will relieve sneezing and a runny nose. If you’re stuffed up, take an oral decongestant such as Sudafed or use Otrivin Decongestant Nasal Spray. Combination products such as Claritin Extra or Allegra-D, which contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant, will help relieve congestion and sneezing. If you have a wet cough, drink lots of fluids, stand in a steamy shower and inhale the vapours and consider using an expectorant such as Robitussin Chest Congestion or Benylin E Extra Strength. See your doctor if your symptoms persist longer than a week or worsen.

Pharmacist Colleen Brady practises in Vancouver and is a lecturer in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia.