Pharmacist’s warning over common flu mistake that’s a ‘waste of money’

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As cold and flu season begins once again, one pharmacist has offered some expert advice to help you treat the unpleasant symptoms. Abbas Kanani, the superintendent pharmacist at Chemist Click, has shared which ingredients in cold and flu products will actually help treat your symptoms – and the biggest mistake people make when they have a cold or the flu.

Speaking to The Mirror, he explained that the most important thing to do before buying any cold and flu medicine is to really take stock of your symptoms. 

There are three types of ingredients that can make a real difference, depending on how you’re feeling – the first is a decongestant (also known as a vasodilator) for if you have a blocked nose, the second is a cough expectorant for mucus coughs and the third is a cough suppressant for dry, tickly coughs.

Abbas said: “Lemsip Max capsules for example have paracetamol which will help bring down your temperature if you have a fever, it’s also got Phenylephrine Hydrochloride which is a vasodilator and that helps to dilate the blood vessels in your nose and relieve nasal congestion and it’s got Guaifensensin which is what’s known as an expectorant and it helps cough out phlegm from the airways.

“So when you have cold and flu, you need to know what kind of cough you have. If you have a dry cough and you’ve got nasal congestion and you took Lemsip Max, it wouldn’t help because it would be encouraging you to cough and if you have a dry cough there’s nothing for you to clear. What you’d need is another ingredient for your dry, tickly cough which is a cough suppressant like Dextromethorphan, and this works in the opposite way to Guaifensensin. It helps to suppress the cough reflex.

“So by the same token, if you have a chesty cough and you take medicine for a dry cough, essentially you’re not helping get rid of what’s on your chest and this can increase your chances of having an infection.”

Abbas went on to say that there is one other crucial cold and flu ingredient to keep an eye out for – as not everyone will be able to take the ones mentioned above.

“If you’re pregnant, you can take paracetamol but you can’t take Phenylephrine because that increases your blood pressure and you also can’t use it at all if you have high blood pressure, so make sure to look at the product to see if it’s suitable for you.” 

If you can’t use Phenylephrine but are suffering with bad nasal congestion, the expert instead recommends looking for products with Oxymetazoline, another vasodilator that is commonly found in nasal sprays like SUDAFED.

“I actually find these things more effective than tablets,” Abbas added. “That’s because they’re local as opposed to systemic so they’re a lot more potent and have a direct action and work quite quickly. If you’re bunged up and you use one before bedtime it will clear your nasal passage.”

However, there is a warning to note here with decongestant products.

“You cannot use this for longer than seven days as it can cause something known as rebound congestion which ultimately means that when your cold infection causing your symptoms has gone, your nasal symptoms will still persist. You can be fine and the rest will have gone, but you will still have a stuffy nose, so that’s something to bear in mind.”

He added: “Those are the main ingredients that are contained in a host of different bits and bobs at the pharmacy. If you actually look at the ingredients there, most of them will be the same, just marketed in different ways. You don’t need to go for the most expensive brands, the corporate companies will do their own versions, like Boots or Superdrug.

“If you go and look at the cold and flu remedies and you actually pick up a Lemsip Max or a SUDAFED or any of the brands and compare the ingredients, they’re going to be the same. You don’t need the most expensive ones, that’s just the power of marketing.”

Abbas did add that there was one product that is a ‘waste of money’ in his opinion, but he’s seen many people purchasing it alongside cold and flu medicine over the years.

“There are certain products like immune boosters, vitamins and supplements, that unless you’re actually deficient in these particular vitamins or nutrients, which anyone following a steady, balanced diet should not be, then there’s no need to take them.

“I used to see loads of people would come to the pharmacy when they’re ill and they’ll be buying vitamin C and the whole lot and I was like why are you buying this? I used to have a conversation with them, as they didn’t realise it wasn’t going to have much of an impact on their current state. I think vitamin C is probably one of the big misconceptions, as people think it’s going to help speed up their recovery time, but it’s not.”

The expert adds that when it comes to a cold or the flu there is no way to “nip it in the bud” as once it’s started it will simply run its course, no matter when you start taking any of the medications – and this could be for as many as 10 days.

However, if you still have symptoms after three weeks, such as a persistent cough, Abbas recommends seeking medical advice from a GP.

“It doesn’t make much difference whether you start taking cold and flu products earlier or later on, as they don’t have any bearing on the nature of the virus and it will progress irrespective of whether you’ve taken it or not.

“They’re all just symptomatic relief.”

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