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Q. "My teenage son has come down with a viral infection. How do I know if it's a cold or the flu, and what can he do to get better?"

As we get into fall weather, this is also the start of cough and cold season and viral infections become more common.

Miguel Lopez-Dee Pharmacist OwnerStatistically speaking, it’s more likely your son has a cold, since it is estimated that on average, adults get 4 to 6 colds per year, while children get 6 to 8 of them.(1) The flu is (thankfully) less common. However, a flu can lead to more serious complications, so you are wise to want to know which it is. While the common cold and influenza (“the flu”) share many similarities, there are also some key differences. 

Generally, colds are relatively harmless, and resolve on their own. While flu symptoms are usually more severe, most people recover within 1-2 weeks. The cold and flu also have an important socio-economic impact. Approximately 40% of time lost from work and 30% of school absences are attributed to the common cold. The flu can also lead to serious complications, mostly with people that have other medical conditions, are elderly, or very young children. On average, over 12,000 Canadians are admitted to hospital, and about 3,500 patients die each year from complications.

A cold is often an infection of the nose and throat, while the flu can also involve the lungs. Both are caused by viruses, and it is easy to confuse the two with one another. The table below lists a number of symptoms that can help to differentiate between a cold and the flu.




Onset of symptoms

Gradual (1-3 days)

Sudden (could be within a few hours)

Duration of symptoms

Usually 1-2 weeks

2 to 3 weeks; can last up to 1 month



Common; high; can last 3-4 days




Aches and pains

Sometimes; mild


Fatigue, weakness

Sometimes; mild

Common; often extreme

Runny or stuffy nose


Less common but may be present




Sore throat



Chest discomfort, coughing

Sometimes; mild

Common; often severe


Since colds and the flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics are ineffective and therefore not prescribed for these conditions. Instead, treatment is aimed at alleviating any occurring symptoms. Here are the most common over-the-counter remedies for colds and the flu:

  • Analgesics such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are used to alleviate headaches, generalized aches and pains, sore throat, and to reduce fever. Acetyl Salicylic Acid (ASA) can also help with these symptoms, but anyone under 16 years of age with a flu should not take ASA due to a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome, which can affect the brain and liver.
  • For congestion or a runny nose, decongestants such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine are available in oral dosages, while nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline or other similar ingredients can be used.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine can help with sneezing, but also may have a drying effect if you have a runny nose, or cause drowsiness and help you fall asleep more easily for a good night's rest.
  • Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, can help calm a persistent dry cough.
  • Guaifenesin, an expectorant, can help loosen phlegm and allow you to expel mucus.
  • For sore throat, lozenges with various ingredients and flavours are available.

Teenage boy feeling sickSome vitamins and natural products can also help boost your immune system whether you are trying to get better or to prevent catching a cold or flu in the first place.

Vitamin C and Echinacea are very commonly used to support your own immune system in fighting respiratory infections, reducing severity, and shortening the duration of coughs and colds.

Thym, another natural product, can be used to relieve coughs and bronchitis. American ginseng extract taken daily may also provide some benefit for individuals that get at least two colds a year by reducing the frequency, duration, and severity of their colds. With the plethora of products available, it’s always a good idea to consult your pharmacist to help you select the safest and most appropriate products for you.

Finally, here are some non-drug remedies to help you prevent or fight a cold or flu:

  • Practice good hygiene and frequent handwashing
  • Cover your mouth with your arm or sleeve when coughing or sneezing
  • Get immunized against the flu annually
  • If you get a cold or the flu, try to avoid contact with people who are at a high risk of flu complications, such as the elderly, people with respiratory conditions like asthma, etc.
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Use a warm salt-water gargle for sore throat
  • Use a humidifier to moisten room air and soothe coughs


  1. Canadian Family Physician - November 2011, 57 (11) 1289-1290


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