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Cold, flu and other respiratory tract infections

Caused by a variety of over 200 clever little viruses, the common cold is responsible for a huge number of days off work and school every single year. Unfortunately, no one can avoid these snot-inducing, cough producing and frequently knackering group of conditions.

The good news however is that for the majority of us, a little time and TLC is all that’s needed to help us recover.

The typical symptoms of a cold usually last for 7 to 10 days and include:

  • sore throat
  • runny or blocked nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • mild headaches
  • mild body aches

Is it the flu or a cold?

Albeit not always straightforward to know for certain whether you have the flu or a common cold, the flu generally makes you feel so unwell that you are unable to get on with normal activities.

“A very senior GP once told me that the way to diagnose if somebody has the flu or a cold is by asking them to imagine a £50 note lying on the floor. If they’d get out of bed for it, they probably don’t have the flu!” – Claudia, GP

When to consult a doctor

There are no hard and fast rules here, but it is first worth considering two things.

Firstly, most respiratory tract infections and all colds/flus are caused by viruses, so antibiotics would not help you to recover. For example, 60-85% of tonsillitis, 98-99.5% of sinusitis and 95% of bronchitis are caused by viruses.

Secondly, although a small percentage of the time these infections will be caused by bacteria, if you are otherwise normally fit and well – you should be able to clear the infection with the help of your own immune system and without antibiotics.

In most cases, both colds and the flu can be self-managed at home without seeing a healthcare professional. However, if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Young child under 5 years of age
  • Aged 65 or over
  • You are pregnant
  • Have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, asthma, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • Have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy, steroids or HIV

and think you have the flu, please book a GP appointment.


Avoiding antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels worldwide and this is in part down to their overuse for infections that often resolve naturally.

In most cases, both colds and the flu can be self-managed at home without seeing a healthcare professional or receiving a prescription.

However, if you have any of the following risk factors, and think you have the flu, please book a GP appointment.

  • Young child under 5 years of age
  • Aged 65 or over
  • You are pregnant
  • Have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, asthma, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • Have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy, steroids or HIV

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Treating viral illnesses

For those without risk factors the best things to do include:

  • Getting plenty of rest and sleep
  • Keeping warm
  • Discussing over the counter medication options with your local pharmacist
  • Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen (if not contraindicated) to lower your temperature and treat aches and pains
  • Drinking plenty of water (or squash / watered down juice) to avoid dehydration
  • Gargling with salt water to relieve a sore throat

Whilst doing so, keep an eye out for symptoms that would suggest you should consult a doctor.

These symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing food or drink
  • A persistently high fever (over 38 degrees Celsius)
  • Feeling confused or drowsy
  • Becoming increasingly worse as the days go by or not getting better

If you are worried or unsure about your symptoms, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor.

When do I need a sick note for work?

You only need a note from a doctor after 7 days off work sick. This means that for the first 7 days of illness, you can self-certify, whether it be verbally, by e-mail or however advised by your employer.

If you have been off work for more than 4 days, your employer might ask you for an “Employee Statement of Sickness” form which you can find here.