Consumers still need a fair bit of education around the common cold, write Esther Lau and Lisa Nissen

Despite the coordinated efforts of antibiotic awareness campaigns, it feels like we still have the same conversation with many patients every year when they are in the pharmacy looking for OTC cold and flu products: “I’m coming down with a cold, so I need to see the Dr for antibiotics,” or “I’m coughing up green phlegm – so that means I need to get antibiotics”.

Every year, pharmacists play an important role, reminding patients that colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics won’t help them feel better, or get over their cold faster.

Similarly, the green (or yellow) phlegm doesn’t automatically mean they need antibiotics. The colour is from their white blood cells (neutrophils) responding to the cold virus. It actually means their immune system is working to fight off the virus – rather than bacteria taking over.

With the worsening flu season year on year, it is a good time to remind patients of the difference between the common cold and influenza. Generally speaking, the common cold is less severe compared to the flu, and tends not to cause serious complications.

Since many of the respiratory symptoms are non-specific, it is important for pharmacists to try and help patients distinguish between a ‘really bad cold’ and the flu. However, sometimes it is difficult to be completely sure, even with the flu tests.

 

Signs and symptoms

Flu

Cold

Onset

Abrupt

Gradual

Incubation period (time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)

1-4 days (average 2 days)

1-3 days

Infectious period (time during which an infection can infect others)

1 day before symptoms develop, and up to 5-7 days after becoming sick

1 day before symptoms begin and for the first 5 days of being sick

Fever

Usual

Rare

Aches

Usual

Slight

Chills

Fairly common

Uncommon

Fatigue, weakness

Usual

Sometimes

Sneezing

Sometimes

Common

Stuffy nose

Sometimes

Common

Sore throat

Sometimes

Common

Chest discomfort, cough

Common

Mild to moderate

Headache

Common

Rare

 

General strategies to help prevent the spread of the cold (and the flu) includes reminding patients to wash their hands frequently, and to sneeze and cough into tissues or the bend of their elbow to avoid contaminating their hands.

While there is no specific exclusion period for the common cold, it is helpful for patients with the cold to stay home from work / school to rest and recover, as this will help prevent spreading the cold – in this instance, sharing is not caring!

Dr Esther Lau and Prof Lisa Nissen are from the School of Clinical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology.