Ask Your Pharmacist

November 7, 2018

How is the cold different than the flu? What is the best medicine to take for a cold? 


The common cold and influenza (flu) are common viral infections that affect the upper respiratory system. They have many symptoms in common like a runny nose, sore throat, cough, and sinus congestion which make it difficult to tell them apart. Typically, the common cold starts a little slower, and sneezing in the first few days may be present. By comparison, the flu includes headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Flu symptoms usually have a quick onset, and symptoms are generally more severe then they are with cold.

Aside from the differences in symptoms, the common cold is more common than the flu is (It’s in the name!). You can catch a cold anytime throughout the year with the most common times being April to May and September. Also, it’s common to have the cold multiple times per year. An average adult will have one or two colds per year while children can have as many as six to eight colds per year. This happens because there are many different viruses that cause the cold.

Both cold viruses and flu viruses are transmitted when secretions (mucus) from an infected individual enter the air when that individual coughs or sneezes. The viruses are then breathed in by others. Mucus can also be spread through runny noses that get on the hands and is then passed to the hands of another person by direct touch, or by touching the same surface. Viruses on your hands can be transmitted when you rub your eyes or put your hands in your mouth.

So, one of the most important steps you can take to help prevent the cold and flu is to avoid these secretions. Regularly washing your hands will kill any virus you’ve accidentally come in contact with. Avoid people who are sick or wear a mask when near them. The best means to prevent the flu is to get the flu shot. Unfortunately, since the cold is caused by so many viruses, it is unlikely a vaccine will ever be available for the common cold. I generally do not recommend preventative products like echinacea as studies have not demonstrated that they are effective at preventing or shortening cold duration.

These are no real treatments for the cold or flu. Antibiotics are not effective against the cold or flu, and prescription antivirals provide minimal to no reduction in symptoms, flu duration and flu complications. Colds last an average of five to seven days (but can last much longer) and flu symptoms last 10 days. There are medications available over-the-counter to help manage symptoms. A fever, headache and sore throat may be alleviated with products containing acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®). Decongestants are used to help relieve sinus congestion and pain. Dextromethorphan (DM) helps calm coughs and Guaifenesin helps break up mucus and congestion. All these drugs are available in a variety of over-the-counter products so be sure to ask your pharmacist which product would be best with your specific symptoms.

Also, many of these products can interact with medication and medical conditions. For example, Advil® and decongestants can affect blood pressure and heart rate so they may not be safe options for patients with high blood pressure or heart conditions. If you are pregnant, on medication, or have chronic health conditions, be sure to discuss the safety of these products with your pharmacist. It is also worth mentioning that zinc tablets or lozenges may reduce the duration of a cold and may be worth a try.

When it comes to cold and flu symptoms, your pharmacist is a valuable resource to help you manage your symptoms in the safest and most effective way. There are a wide variety of products with various combinations of ingredients, some of which I have not mentioned in this article, so it is important to read the label and refer any questions to the pharmacist on duty. If symptoms last more than 14 days, you have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, severely swollen glands, severe throat pain, or severe sinus pain, then see your physician for an assessment as a bacterial infection may be present.  

Jared Mactavish (BSc., Pharm) is a pharmacist in Saint John. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only, and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to

Saint John pharmacist Jared Mactavish dispenses information and advice on a wide range of pharmacy questions in a regular column published in several newspapers.

If you have a question you’d like to see answered in his column, you can send it to him at

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