Each year, the cold weather announces the start of not only autumn but also cold and flu season. Adults get an average of 2 to 4 colds per year, and children get an average of 6 to 10. The flu (or “influenza”) is much less common.
Although these two respiratory infections seem similar, they do have differences.
|Flu symptomes||Cold symptomes|
|Sudden onset||Gradual onset|
|Aches, joint and muscle pain||Sneezing|
|Intense fatigue that can last 2 to 3 weeks||Nasal congestion, runny nose|
|Fever: 38 °C to 40°C||Fever generally absent or low-grade (38°C)|
|Intense headaches||Headaches are rare or mild|
|Dry and painful cough||Dry or wet cough|
|Duration: 7 to 14 days||Duration: 7 days|
|Possible complications: ear infections, sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, hospitalization, death
||Possible complications: ear infections, sinusitis, pneumonia|
When someone with a cold or the flu coughs or sneezes, the virus is expelled into the air in fine droplets. You contract the virus by breathing in these droplets or when you ingest the virus from contact with contaminated objects (e.g., door handles, phones or toys). In expelled secretions, cold viruses can survive for up to 24 hours and influenza viruses can survive for up to 48 hours.
Hygiene is key to keeping cold and flu viruses at bay.
Vaccines to prevent the flu are available. The goal of vaccination is to prevent people from contracting the illness and developing complications, such as pneumonia, which can have very serious consequences.
Vaccinations generally start in November. The vaccine protects you against strains of the flu virus that experts believe will be more in circulation that year. Full protection begins about 2 weeks after you get vaccinated and lasts for at least 6 months. By getting vaccinated, you are protecting not only yourself but also other people by reducing the risk of transmission.
Almost everyone can get the vaccine, and it is given free of charge to the following people:
Note: People with other conditions may also get vaccinated free of charge. The most common are listed above. To find out if you are eligible for free vaccination or to learn more about vaccinations in general, talk to your pharmacist or doctor or visit the Government of Quebec's Portail santé mieux-être.
Studies show that echinacea has a minimal effect at preventing or treating the common cold. Although the evidence is inconsistent, studies that do show an effect of echinacea i ndicate that it may reduce the duration of a cold by about half a day to just over a day. The different parts of the plant used to make the extracts and a lack of product control are some reasons for echinacea’s inconsistent health effect.
The effectiveness of ginseng and zinc is also controversial, and these substances can interact with your existing medications.
Always consult your pharmacist before using natural health products to avoid taking these products unnecessarily and to ensure they don't make your condition worse.
Colds and the flu usually go away by themselves in 7 to 14 days without medication. However, if your cold or flu won't go away or your symptoms get worse, you will probably need to see a doctor. If you aren’t sure, ask your pharmacist.
Below are some cold remedies and flu remedies that can relieve your symptoms:
An antibiotic is an anti-infective agent that kills harmful bacteria in the body. However, colds and the flu are both caused by viruses. Since viruses are a completely different type of micro-organism compared to bacteria, antibiotic treatment is ineffective at treating them.
However, colds and the flu can have complications that lead to bacterial infections, such as ear infections, bronchitis, sinusitis or pneumonia. In this case, your doctor may decide to prescribe an antibiotic.
Flu antivirals help limit the spread of the influenza virus, decrease the duration of the flu, reduce the severity of flu symptoms, and decrease flu-related hospitalizations. To be effective, flu antivirals need to be taken as soon as the first flu symptoms appear. The decision to use antivirals is a personal one.
Nasal washes, tablets, syrups, lozenges—there is no end to the available products to treat cold and flu symptoms. Consulting your pharmacist about cold and flu medication is a smart thing to do, even when the product seems harmless.
First, like all over-the-counter or prescription drugs, cold and flu medications can cause side effects. They may also contain ingredients that can interact with or change the effect of your medication. You also need to avoid taking products that contain similar ingredients, as large accumulated doses of the same substance can cause severe side effects or serious health problems. Overall, you should talk to your pharmacist to make an informed choice.
If you decide to take something to relieve your symptoms, you should use a product with a single active ingredient to relieve one specific symptom at a time. All-in-one products that combine multiple ingredients for multiple symptoms are rarely sufficient. When you take these combination products, you may be taking unnecessary medication, which increases the risk of side effects.
Here are a few tips to help you choose the best cold and flu medication for you.
Coughing is the body’s natural defence mechanism to eliminate secretions that block the airways and lungs.
DM, chlophedianol and codeine are contraindicated if you are taking certain medications. People with diabetes also need to check the sugar content of cough syrups. Consult your pharmacist to ensure that these products won’t interact with your medication or that any health problems you have won't prevent you from taking them.
There are three types of products to relieve nasal congestion.
Pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine must not be used by people who have narrow-angle glaucoma, heart disease, urinary retention and some thyroid gland problems. They must be used with caution if you are diabetic or have hypertension.
Decongestant sprays must also be used with caution by people with hypertension and must be avoided by people experiencing an acute glaucoma attack.
If you are pregnant, you can use decongestant sprays during the 1st trimester. Oral pseudoephedrine is also considered safe during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. However, non-pharmacological (saline) remedies should be your first choice throughout your pregnancy.
Some combinations of cold and flu medications contain antihistamines. These products may relieve a runny nose by helping to dry up nasal secretions. Antihistamines are often found in night medications, as these products cancel out the stimulation of decongestants. For some people, antihistamines don’t cause drowsiness, so the night formula will be just as stimulating for them as the day medication. Use saline solutions to help get rid of mucous.
Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are generally effective at controlling fever. If your body temperature increases even when you use these products at the recommended doses, consult a doctor.
Caution: Don’t give acetylsalicylic acid to children or teens
You can’t give acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) to children or youth under the age of 18, as aspirin use is linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but very serious health problem.
For more information about how to prevent colds and the flu and your treatment options, consult your pharmacist, who is here to help.