Why won’t my cold go away? It’s time to ask the GP...

Seasonal health: We ask GP Muiris Houston for his diagnosis and cold/flu expert advice

Do I have a cold? The flu? A virus? Or...what?

Do I have a cold? The flu? A virus? Or...what?


I am sitting in the office with at least 10 balled up tissues beside me. There are another 20 in the bin. It’s just as well I bought the man-size box.

Looking around, I’m not the only one with streaming eyes and a dose of the snuffles. In fact I’m not sure whether to blame the other coughing hacks for my symptoms of the recent flight I took (What happens to your body when you fly, June 9, 2016 ). So, I figured it was time to ask resident (though off-site) expert Medical Matters columnists and GP Muiris Houston for his opinion.

Health+Family: I have what feels like a cold but it’s been the worst dose in a long time, and it seems to be taking forever to get over. Is it really just a cold?

Dr Muiris Houston: Probably. There are a variety of cold viruses circulating at any given time and they are far more common than influenza. Some viruses take quite a while to shake off and it is possible to feel tired for a number of weeks after the respiratory symptoms have settled.

Colds tend to come on more gradually than the flu. The flu hits you like a steam train; within hours you can be literally laid out on a couch feeling markedly unwell. You will have severe muscle pains, a high temperature and the shivers. A cold will more likely take the form of a blocked nose, sore throat, headache and sneezing. You won’t feel great but, unlike full blown flu, you can keep going if you have to.

H+F: I feel pretty good in the morning but after a few hours sitting in air-con and working at a screen, my eyes are running and nose streaming. Why oh why?

Doc: People with colds get a constellation of symptoms called coryza. Inflammation of the upper respiratory tract causes a mucus to discharge from the nose, the eyes and the sinuses.

So the main cause is probably the virus itself. However air conditioning drys the air prompting glands to produce fluid to lubricate the eyes and nose. Try putting a bowl of water close to your work station; it may hydrate the air beside you and help reduce your discomfort.

H+F: I’m just over the running nose and sneezing but now the phlegmy cough has started. Is this two different colds one after the other?

Doc: It’s unlikely that you would contract two different cold viruses in quick succession. It’s more likely the virus has moved from your upper respiratory tract to the lungs. Here it produces mucus which irritates the lining of the airways which then makes you cough.

H+F: I know it’s a virus but should I be taking an antibiotic to tackle an infection that might get me when I am down?

Doc: Almost certainly not. While it is possible to get a bacterial infection secondary to a viral one, most people with a cold don’t. However if your cold or other respiratory symptoms return after settling for a few days then it’s a good idea to get checked out by your GP. This could be a sign that you are developing a secondary infection.

H+F: I can’t taste anything but am having fantasies about hot salty soup. What’s that about?

Doc: I don’t know. A form of editor-itis perhaps?!

H+F: Should I get the flu jab at work?

Doc: Yes, if your workplace is offering flu vaccination then go for it. The vaccine may not prevent everyone who receives it from developing influenza but it will, at the very least, lessen the severity of the dose.

H+F: My nose is really sore from the tissues. How long will my skin take to recover?

Doc: A few days should see your skin settle. There is no need for special creams unless you notice a crusty growth developing in the painful area. This could herald the development of a staphylococcal skin infection which will need a few days treatment with antibiotic cream. (Editor’s note: A light coating for Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream first thing in the morning is a great protector from the weather elements and the nose blowing. Reapply during the day. #nosesaver)

H+F: Will a hot whiskey help?

Doc: Put it this way, it won’t do you any harm! It will counteract the chills, warm you up and probably take the edge off how rotten you feel, at least temporarily.

However, go easy on the alcohol volume when you have a viral infection. It makes you dehydrated, when what your body needs is lots of hydration to help the immune system fight the cold virus. Plenty of fluids and regular paracetamol is the best remedy for a cold.

Thanks Muiris. Time to act on your last piece of advice and I’ll be back to ask about man flu...