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A wide range of cold and flu remedies are available at this time of year. But do they really make a difference, or do we fool ourselves and waste our money by buying them? Why do they have so many ingredients, what do they do and are they really safe?

Most of us will experience a common cold or even flu at this time of year.  For most of us it is not a life-threatening illness, but will certainly interfere with enjoyment of life and possibly lead to time off work.  We have been educated not to seek our doctor’s help for a common cold, or even flu, as it is well-known that they are usually caused by viruses for which antibiotics are ineffective.  There are a number of other types of medicines a doctor can prescribe, which will not cure a cold or flu, but will certainly make the symptoms less troublesome. 

But you can buy most of these medicines yourself – in over-the-counter cold and flu remedies.

Cold and flu symptoms

A number of symptoms are associated with having a cold or flu, and our experience of them may differ each time we are ill, or between different people. 

The range includes headache, sore throat, joint aches and pains, fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough and nasal congestion (that ‘stuffed up’ feeling).  Added to which, any or all of these symptoms may stop, or interrupt, our sleep at night when we are awoken by coughing, or because of difficulty breathing through the nose.  Some of these symptoms are actually caused by our bodies trying to rid itself of the infection – for example by making lots of mucus to wash the infected cells away. 

A healthy person, without underlying illness will cure themselves of a cold or flu within a couple of weeks, but those fourteen days can be made very miserable if there is no relief from the symptoms.

How can cold and flu remedies help?

To treat the variety of different symptoms, remedies for colds and flu often contain a combination of ingredients, designed to relieve each of the most common symptoms.  This makes them very convenient, as otherwise you might have to take a number of different medicines to treat each of the cold symptoms.  So remedies frequently contain a pain-killer, cough suppressant, decongestant and something to help you get rid of excessive mucus.  There may even be something to help you sleep (in night-time remedies).

Do they all contain the same ingredients?

No. Different formulations will contain different combinations of ingredients, to treat one or more symptoms.  Specific ingredients such as pain-killers or decongestants are available to buy individually, but the combination remedies may offer more convenience if you are suffering from a number of cold and flu symptoms.

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