Tis the season to... hack and cough, but don’t go for antibiotics

Forget antibiotics and expensive remedies, Grace Hammond reports on the cold truth behind the annual bout of coughs and sneezes.

It happens as regular as clockwork. In the run up to Christmas most of us will at some point be sporting a streaming nose and hacking cough.

In the past we used to put up and shut up, but these days it seems we’re not so hardy. Research by the Men’s Health Forum indicates that, within four to seven days of having cold-like symptoms, both men and women tend to give up self-treatment and seek advice from a doctor.

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This means many of us will be asking for antibiotics that we really don’t need, rather than persevering with over-the-counter remedies, or waiting a little longer for the virus to run its course.

“The symptoms of common winter illnesses such as coughs, colds and sore throats can often last longer than people expect, but antibiotics aren’t the right treatment for these conditions,” says Sheila Kelly, chief executive of the over-the-counter medicines trade association PAGB (Proprietary Association of Great Britain).

Dr Maureen Baker, health protection spokesperson for the Royal College of GPs, agrees. “When it’s a purely viral illness like most colds, flu, the winter vomiting bug and chicken pox, antibiotics will have no effect whatsoever,” she says.

Of course, sometimes what starts as a cold can develop into something more serious – particularly for those who are already vulnerable, such as babies, the elderly, or people whose immune systems may be weaker due to other ongoing health conditions or treatments they’re on.

And it is possible for a bacterial illness to develop on top of a virus – for example, somebody with flu may develop bacterial pneumonia – but this is rare.

“That’s not the common course of the illness,” stresses Baker. “The vast majority of people with a viral illness will have no bacterial complications.”

Generally speaking, many of us underestimate how long the symptoms of common minor winter ailments can last. According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), it’s not unusual for a cough to last three weeks, sinusitis can last two and a half, and a cold can linger for up to a week and a half.

Baker advises people check out the information on the NHS Choices website (www.nhs.uk) if they are unsure. “People should use their common sense – if symptoms are significantly worse than normal, or there are other symptoms that are worrying you, or you start to feel really ill, get more information or seek help,” she adds.

People can make more use of their local pharmacists, too, who can offer advice on suitable over-the-counter treatments, especially if people are taking painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, at the same time. Many non-prescription cold and flu remedies contain paracetamol too, which is why reading the labels is so crucial, to avoid potentially serious overdosing.

Leyla Hannbeck, head of pharmacy at the National Pharmacy Association, 
says: “Some people research 
their symptoms on the internet and believe whatever they read and start self-treating, which 
isn’t the best way of doing 

“It’s not just about the condition, it’s about other medications the person might be on. Not all painkillers go together, and not all cough syrups go with particular medications, so it’s important to have a discussion about it.”