Make sense of cold and flu meds

With most South Africans choosing to self-medicate a cold and flu these days, it's important to know which one you're dealing with in order to treat it with the appropriate over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

Tommy Scott, head pharmacist at Pharma Dynamics, one of SA's leading pharmaceutical companies, says there are more than 500 known OTC colds and flu medicine brands sold in pharmacies nationwide, which makes it difficult for consumers to decide which product to buy.

Uninformed consumers

"A survey among our network of pharmacists also indicated that very few consumers are actually familiar with the active ingredients in cough, cold and flu remedies and even fewer ask for help from their pharmacist," says Scott.

He says having a basic understanding of the types of ingredients contained in these medications can help consumers to make an informed choice.

"If you've come down with the sniffles and you want to self medicate, it's important to know if you're suffering from a cold or flu. While they share common symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing and sometimes a sore throat, there are other ways of distinguishing between the two.

"A cold usually comes on gradually – over the course of a day or two. It generally leaves you feeling tired, sneezing, coughing and plagued by a runny nose. You might not have a fever, but when you do, it's only slightly higher than normal. Colds usually last three to four days, but can linger for up to two weeks.

"Flu, on the other hand, comes on suddenly and hits hard. You will feel weak and tired and you could run a fever as high as 40°C. Your muscles will ache, you will feel cold the one minute and hot the next and you could also have a pounding headache and sore throat. The fever may last three to five days, but you could feel weak and tired for two to three weeks," says Scott.

5 to 20% suffer from flu annually

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 5 to 20% of South Africans actually suffer from the flu annually, while the average adult can expect to get at least two bouts of cold a year. Flu can however lead to serious complications in those with suppressed immune systems, such as the elderly, children or those suffering from a chronic condition, and they should consult a doctor if symptoms persist after one week.

"Because of the wide variety of symptoms that people may experience, it's especially important to treat the right ones," says Scott.

"If you have a runny nose and sore throat, medications that include an ingredient to control coughs should be avoided. Consumers need to make sure they choose medications that treat only the symptoms that they have and that they are not taking medications they don't need.

Active ingredients

"The best way to make sure that you choose the appropriate OTC medication to treat a cold or flu is to understand the different active ingredients and the symptoms they treat."

Scott points out that consumers should be aware of four major active ingredient categories related to cold and flu symptom relief. They are analgesics, nasal decongestants, cough suppressants and expectorants. Medications that treat more than one symptom, often referred to as combination medicines, are also an option.

"Cough suppressants will help to control a persistent cough and expectorants will make coughs more productive.

"For a sore throat, try sucking lozenges – most of them are pleasantly flavoured and contain glycerine to lubricate a sore throat, while others are medicated. Another option would be throat sprays containing local anaesthetics and anti-inflammatory ingredients. For that generally awful feeling, take paracetamol.

"When in doubt always ask your pharmacist, who will be able to give you advice on symptoms and the correct course of treatment," says Scott. - (Health24, August 2011)

- Press release issued by Lange 360 on behalf of Pharma Dynamics

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Cold or flu?

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