It’s almost November and flu season is upon us, but lots of people are already struggling with a rather nasty bout of the common cold. Which got us wondering: is there a particularly vicious strain circulating this year?
According to GPs, the answer is no. Dr Kenny Livingstone, a registered GP and founder of ZoomDoc, tells HuffPost UK: “I’ve not seen anything more dramatic this year than any other year.
“I think with the change in the weather, especially over the last week or so, people are noticing it a lot more because it’s that time of the year when people are getting coughs and colds, and also flu.”
Noted. So why are some people really struggling right now, while others aren’t?
“Colds, like flu, have many different strains and the viruses that cause colds keep changing so that our immune system has to start again fighting off each one,” Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, tells HuffPost UK.
“This is why we can catch many colds over the years whereas something like chicken pox we usually only get once as our bodies then fight it off without us being aware of it when we are exposed to the virus repeatedly.”
People can experience the same strain of cold in different ways, with different symptoms and of differing severity. It all depends on a number of factors including whether a person has any existing health conditions, how well their immune system functions, their genetic make-up, and how they behave when they are ill (for example, resting up and keeping warm versus carrying on and working through it).
“Unfortunately, there is no cure for a cold and self-care is the best option to minimise the discomfort,” adds Prof Stokes-Lampard, giving us the green light to take that day off work if we need it. “We recommend that patients take lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids and manage any pain associated with their symptoms with paracetamol and other remedies available over the counter.”
Dr Livingstone swears by natural remedies, for example adding honey, lemon and ginger to hot water. The same can be said for people who have a cough.
Recent guidance published by Public Health England (PHE) and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) said people should have soothing honey for coughs instead of antibiotics. It’s worth noting a cough that lasts for longer than three weeks should be checked out by a GP.
There can often be confusion when it comes to the difference between the common cold and flu, which could lead to people thinking they’ve got a cold when actually it’s something far worse. A cold tends to develop gradually over one or two days, while the flu comes on much faster. Colds typically mean you’ve got a blocked or runny nose, streaming eyes and a sore throat.
“But with regards to flu, it’s a lot worse and you can have very high fevers, muscle aches, pains and you’ll be in bed for a couple of days,” explains Dr Livingstone.
For people with underlying health problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, flu can be dangerous and in some cases deadly, which is why the vaccine is recommended.
Prof Stokes-Lampard adds: “It is important people, particularly those in at-risk groups, such as young children, the elderly, those with long-term health problems and pregnant women, protect themselves against contracting influenza by getting their flu jab, which is freely available from their GP or some pharmacies.” (You can read our extensive guide to this year’s flu vaccines here.)
If you have underlying health problems and you end up with the common cold, there is a chance it may progress onto a bacterial infection, tonsillitis or a lower respiratory tract infection. “Then it can be more serious,” adds Dr Livingstone.