Cold and Flu - what works and what doesn't

As winter arrives, so does the cold and flu season – so what can you do to protect yourself from illness? From home remedies to prescription medicine, we look at what works and what doesn’t.

Contrary to common belief, it’s not the cold weather that gives you a cold. Rhinoviruses are actually responsible for colds, while influenza viruses are responsible for the flu. We’re more susceptible to both during winter because the cold, dark days tend to take their toll on our immune system, and we spend more time in close quarters with others – creating a breeding ground for germs.

Cold or flu?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but while they do share some symptoms, there’s also a clear difference.

A cold can last from a few days to two weeks and typical symptoms include a runny nose, blocked nose, sore throat, sneezing and a cough. Sufferers may also experience a mild fever, earache, tiredness and headache.

Flu usually arrives more quickly than a cold and can have symptoms including a sudden fever of 38-40C, muscle aches and pains, sweating, a dry chesty cough, exhaustion, vomiting and feeling the need to lie down.

Both colds and the flu can require extra care among some people at risk of developing chest complications. This includes people over 65, and those under 65 with heart or chest complaints, asthma, serious kidney disease or liver disease, diabetes, lowered immunity due to illness or treatment, and those who have had a stroke or transient ischaemic attack.



The best form of treatment is prevention. People at risk including pregnant women and elderly, can receive a free flu vaccination, but others can also pay for the flu jab.

Cold and flu viruses are spread via infected droplets that are coughed or sneezed out. The Common Cold Centre in Cardiff has found that colds are most contagious in their early stages, when you may have a runny nose and sore throat. Those with a cold can help to stop it spreading by coughing or sneezing into a tissue, throwing used tissues away promptly, and washing their hands after sneezing.

Opening windows in enclosed spaces to circulate fresh air can also help clear out infected particles.

Boosting your immune system


You can make yourself less susceptible to colds and flu by optimising your immune system with plenty of sleep and a healthy diet. There’s also evidence to show some foods help reduce the impact of illness.

Probiotics – taken either through supplements of fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt – have been found to reduce the development of upper respiratory infections by 12 percent.

Adding zinc to your diet can help protect your immune system. Although zinc may not stop you getting a cold, as with vitamin C studies show it reduces the duration of the illness. Honey – in particular manuka honey – has antimicrobial qualities that may protect against bacteria.

Sipping warm drinks and soups, can help open airways, ease congestion and increase mucus flow.

Taking care of your body

When ill, it’s important to stay hydrated and drink around two litres of water a day. Fluids help thin mucus, which in turn makes it easier to clear out of your body. Using nasal saline solutions or rinsing your nose with boiled (and cooled) salted water can help clear out viral particles before they can flourish. They can also help ease nasal congestion naturally. Similarly, gargling with warm salt water can help flush out germs in your mouth.

What to avoid

Beware of non-saline decongestants. Although these may make it easier to breathe by reducing swelling in the nasal passage, they also create a rebound effect – so with each subsequent use you’ll need to administer more. They’re also not suitable for asthmatics.

When it comes to prescription medicine, as colds and flu are both viral, antibiotics are useless – unless you have an infection. Prescription-only antivirals like Tamifly and Relenza can help, but they need to be taken within 48 hours of your symptoms arriving to be effective. Pain relief can help ease the symptoms of colds and flu, but they won’t prevent them or shorten their duration.

The main thing is to prevent colds and flu with good hygiene, to look after your immune system and get plenty of rest. And if you’re feeling unwell don’t hit the gym to ‘sweat it out’ – your body needs to conserve energy to help you recover.

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