Health: ‘Tis the Season for Coughs, Colds & Influenza

Health: ‘Tis the Season for Coughs, Colds & Influenza

Today’s blog I thought I’d publish today instead of next week, due to working as a Dispensary Assistant in the Pharmacy means I see so many people every day with different types of health problems. The most common ones at the moment are coughs, colds, flu and sore throats. So, this blog post is about what you can buy at the pharmacy to help you to get better sooner.

We’ll start the blog with a bit of science to make it easier to understand how and why we catch colds…

The common cold is an infection that is caused by 200 different types of viruses. A virus is a parasitic micro-organism that can only reproduce inside other living cells, called host cells. To grow and reproduce, they must take over the systems of the host cell to utilise the energy and protein producing system that the host cell possesses, so essentially they hijack the host cell for their own benefit.

The way the virus can be caught is through touching infected everyday objects, such as phones, keyboards, door handles, etc. If you touch your eyes or nose after touching the infected object, the virus will find its way into the body where it will multiply and cause infection. The virus can also be caught by inhaling droplets containing the cold virus, so this is why we are told to always cover our mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing and then dispose of any infected tissues, and also to use disinfectants to wash our hands thoroughly to prevent spreading the virus.

When the cold virus enters the body, it attacks the cells of the mucous membrane and causes it to swell and produce even more mucus, and this leads to the blood capillaries swelling. The swelling of the blood capillaries encourages more fluid accumulation and encourages more mucus to be produced. The swollen blood capillaries reduce airflow and make it difficult to breathe through the nose, which is why people experience blocked noses or congestion.

There is no medication that can magically make a cold disappear, but they can help to reduce the symptoms of a cold. The reason why you can’t make it disappear like taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection is because taking medication to kill a virus will mean destroying your own body cells, so it is very risky in doing so, which is why HIV and AIDs are very difficult to cure.

Some terminology to understand before going into the medications:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can only be bought over the pharmacy counter, as you will need the advice of a pharmacy staff member to make sure the medication is right for you, so please be patient with us as we need to ask several questions before selling you the medication for your own health purpose.
  • General Sales List (GSL) medicines can be bought from any retail outlets and doesn’t need to be sold through a pharmacy.

You can take decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, oxymetazoline and xylometazoline. Medicines containing these chemicals are sold as an OTC medicine and the most popular one that is sold is the Sudafed Decongestant Tablets. Some people may like to use nasal sprays that directly target the nose, and a popular one is the Vicks Sinex Decongestant Nasal Spray, which is a GSL medicine. However, this medication is NOT suitable for those with heart problems, high blood pressure, overactive thyroid gland, diabetes, and if you’re on any other medication where you should check with a pharmacist first.

Antihistamines are most known to be taken for hayfever and allergies, but you can actually take it to dry up nasal secretions and reduce sneezing, however, it will not have much of an effect on congestion. Antihistamines used in cold remedies normally include diphenhydramine, chlorphenamine, promethazine and triprolidine. The traditional antihistamines will cause drowsiness and are often used in night-time cold medicines to help people sleep through the night. Night Nurse is a common medicine to be sold to the public as an OTC medicine, which is available in capsule or liquid form to aid people’s sleep and reducing the cold symptoms. In daytime cold medicines, antihistamines are often used in combination with decongestants, which counteracts the drowsy effect as decongestants increase the heart rate and make you more alert, so there is no change in your state of alertness. An example of this is Benylin 4 Flu, which contains both antihistamine and decongestant, which is an OTC medicine.

So, the next most common thing is coughs this season. Coughs are either dry (non-productive) or chesty (productive) or a mixture of both. Coughing is a natural part of the body’s defence mechanisms, which is an indicator of infection, inflammation or irritation of the body’s airways.

  • Chesty cough: the person feels that they have something to cough up, whether that be mucus, phlegm or sputum, which is normally clear or pale green.
  • Dry cough: the cells of the mucous membrane have become swollen and are raw, sore and inflamed, which is often felt as a tickle in the back of the throat, which triggers the coughing and there is little or no mucous production.

To treat a chesty cough, expectorants are commonly recommended, which causes cells to produce thinner mucous so that it is easier to clear by coughing. However, it will still cause you to cough, as expectorants do not stop the cough, but make it easier to remove the mucous and less painful to cough up and reducing the duration in which you do so. Medicines containing expectorants have guaifenesin and ipecacuanha and ammonium chloride. A popular chesty cough medicine is Robittusin Chesty Cough Syrup, which is sugar-free, which is therefore suitable for those who are diabetic and it is also non-drowsy. It is an OTC medicine.

To treat a dry cough, suppressants (antitussives) are used, which are opioid drugs. A side effect of opioid drugs is to suppress the cough reflex in the brain. Suppressants contain codeine, pholcodine or dextromethorphan. Codeine causes drowsiness and constipation and should only be sold under pharmacy advice, as it cannot be sold for those under 18 or breastfeeding mothers. Pholcodine and dextromethorphan are weak opioids recommended for troublesome dry coughs. A cough suppressant is NOT recommended for chesty coughs, as it will stop the cough reflex and will prevent the excess mucus from being expelled. Two good dry cough medicines are the Robitussin Dry Cough Syrup and the Covonia Dry Cough Sugar-Free Formula, which are both OTC medicines.


Cough soothers include glycerin, honey, treacle and simple linctus, which are GSL medicines.

Sore throats are normally caused by inflammation in the respiratory tract and when it affects the throat (pharynx) it is then known as pharyngitis. If the inflammation affects the tonsils, it is known as tonsillitis. The cause of the infection is either viral, bacterial or fungal, but 60-90% of throat infections are caused by a virus.

Most people like to use lozenges like Strepsils and Jakemans (GSL) to sooth the throat, as the sucking action stimulates the salivary glands to lubricate the tonsils and throat. To solve different types of sore throats, you need to decide yourself what type of treatment you need or ask a pharmacy assistant for some advice…


  • Thyrothricin is an antibiotic that reduces the severity and duration of a bacterial throat infection.
  • Benzalkonium chlorine, dequalinum chloride, cetylpyridinium chloride and hexylresorcinol are antifungal or antiseptic ingredients.
  • Benzocaine and lidocaine are anaesthetic agents that numb the throat and relieve pain. They do sometimes cause allergies to develop, so should be limited to use for 5 days. The loss of sensation caused by an anaesthetic can make swallowing difficult in children and the elderly.

The best type of lozenge that can be taken for this type of treatment are Tyrozets Throat Lozenge, which is another OTC medicine.


Flurbiprofen is a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which is used specifically for treating sore throats to reduce the inflammation and pain of a sore throat, however, they are only available as OTC and are only in lozenge form. It isn’t suitable for under 12’s and cannot be used any longer than 3 days. An example is the Strefen Lemon & Honey Lozenge.


Benzydamaine is another NSAID found in some sprays and mouthwash, which is used as a gargle to relieve pain and inflammation. You should only use the product for a maximum of one week, and if the sore throat does not get any better, see your GP. Difflam Throat & Mouth Spray is a popular product as an OTC.


Hexitidine is found in some mouthwashes, which has both anaesthetic and antiseptic activity. You can find them in a lot of GSL products, such as Listerine, Corsodyl, CB12, etc. An example is the Corsodyl Mint Mouthwash, which you can find in any retail store, such as a pharmacy or health & beauty store e.g. Boots, Superdrug, Tesco, Sainsburys, Bodycare, etc.

I know this blog post is a very long one, but I’d just like to stress that you should always go and seek the advice of a pharmacist or someone on the pharmacy team before you decide what treatment is best for yourself, especially if you’re on any medication, suffer any health problems or you’re suffering any worrying symptoms. Only you know yourself when you’re not feeling right, so look after yourself and book to see the GP if your symptoms persist longer than they should be as there could be an underlying health condition that you are not aware of. This post is only recommending some products, but you should always speak to a professional in this field before purchasing products if you are not sure what they are.

Look after yourself and your body will look after you!


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(DISCLAIMER: This post is not sponsored by any of the products and websites attached to the blog post!)


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