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You know it’s that time of year when people are starting to sniffle and sneeze and you’re doing everything you can to avoid picking up a nasty cold or case of the flu from them.  Importantly,  these are different conditions that require different treatment protocols and preferably holistic ones .

The Difference Between Having A Cold And The Flu:


While both forms of illness may circulate at the same time, catching a cold and getting the flu are singular occurrences. Dr Deepa Maharaj, Self Medication Association of South Africa’s Technical Committee chairperson and a qualified pharmacist, explains:  “It is important to understand that colds and influenza (flu) are different conditions. Colds are short-lived viral infections of the upper airway, while flu is a viral illness that occurs predominantly in the winter months in South Africa. 50% of colds are caused by one of more than 100 rhinoviruses, while flu is caused by one of the strains of two types of influenza (A or B). With flu, you need to take greater care in order to prevent complications, such as irreversible damage to your heart muscle.”

Dr Alain Sanua, a GP and holistic health practitioner in Johannesburg, describes the symptoms of each:


  • Congestion in the sinuses causing headache, postnasal drip and cough. This can become a bacterial infection if left untreated.


  • Fever, muscle or body aches and fatigue.
  • Picked up due to weakened immunity, most commonly as a result of stress, fatigue, exhaustion and overworking.

Self-Medicating vs A Visit To The GP:


It’s important to know when you will be able to fight a cold or the flu through self-medication and when it is time to visit the doctor. Getting better as effectively as possible is top priority, as not only do we have many responsibilities that require us to be functioning in good health, but extended illness is a strain on the body.

Dr Maharaj notes: “The symptoms of these conditions can be treated, but neither a cold nor flu can be cured. Those who are at highest risk of contracting the flu or at risk of complications should do everything they can to prevent and avoid the illness, and should consult their doctor as soon as possible.”



Deepa Maharaj, Self Medication Association of South Africa’s Technical Committee chairperson and a qualified pharmacist.

She continues: “If you are not allergic to anything, you can use a number of self-medication products to treat the symptoms of these conditions. However, it is always advisable to consult with your doctor to make sure that you really have the flu and not another disease, and get the correct medication. One must remember that the ‘flu’ is a viral infection; it will not respond to any antibiotic. Antibiotics are only effective in treating secondary bacterial infections sometimes associated with influenza.”

Dr Maharaj provides the following self-medication suggestions:

  1. Speak to your pharmacist about over-the-counter (OTC) drugs to relieve some of the symptoms you are experiencing. “OTC products containing aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to relieve fever, muscle aches and headache, while decongestants (vasoconstrictors) such as pseudoephedrine may help to treat nasal congestion. Pseudoephedrine should not be taken if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, prostate problems, diabetes or thyroid problems.”
  2. Do not give aspirin-containing medications to children with viral infections. Suppressive cough mixtures may help to clear up the dry cough, a typical symptom of the flu. “However, pregnant mothers should be cautious about taking drugs and should always consult their doctor.”
  3. Mucolytics (mucus-thinning agents) such as carbocisteine may help to thin nasal mucus and allow it to drain, which may help to prevent secondary bacterial infections such as sinusitis. “Antihistamine preparations are of little value for colds unless one has an allergic tendency. Drowsiness may be a problematic side-effect.”
  4. Increasing your intake of vitamin A to 10 000 IUs a day, and vitamin C to 1 000-2 000mg a day, may reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. “Most colds and flu will be over in seven to 10 days, and can usually be treated at home. If there is a mild fever and a feeling of lethargy, bed rest is advisable.”

5.“Always consult your doctor if the flu or cold is severe and you show any signs of a secondary infection, ie difficulty in breathing or earache, or if you are in the high-risk group, or your fever persists longer than three days.”

Dr Sanua shares the following home remedies:



  • Aromatherapy oils for steaming to relieve congestion.
  • Nose drops to open up the nasal passage and drain mucus.
  • A very bland diet of only fruit and vegetables in order to detox until the symptoms clear up.


  • Herbal remedies such as echinacea, andrographis or golden seal.

Sanua explains that you should use antibiotics only as a last resort, as they can have a negative impact on your immune system. He also advises that in the case that your illness begins to rapidly deteriorate, you should stop self-medicating and seek medical advice from your General Practitioner.

Why Are Flu Strains becoming More Severe?


Every year the flu changes slightly and we are required to adapt our vaccines accordingly. Dr Maharaj explains: “Due to slight changes (called mutations) in the genetic material of the influenza A and B viruses, new virus strains emerge each year. This is known as ‘antigenic drift’. As a result of these small mutations, vaccines have to be updated each season.”

She adds: “These small, almost yearly, genetic changes should not be confused with a major genetic ‘antigenic shift’. Such a shift could lead to the creation of a completely new influenza virus that humans have not been exposed to before and to which we have little or no resistance, such as the pandemic influenza A/H1N1 (swine flu).”



Dr Sanua answers some of your most frequently asked questions.



Dr Alain Sanua

Why is rest so important to recovery?

When you sleep, you are conserving energy and allowing your body to use that energy to support your immune system in fighting the illness. If you don’t rest, your body will take strain, as it will not have enough energy to fend off the illness.

Is exercise important in prevention?

Absolutely! Exercise is important to every area of proper body function. It detoxifies the body, oxygenates it, and helps to de-stress and work with depression. It is important to developing strong immunity.

What weakens your immunity?

A lack of balance. Anything in excess or deficit is going to impact on your immunity – sleep, exercise, nutrients, water, etc. The body works best when it is in a state of balance and it is our job to optimise that balance.

Am I unhealthy if I get sick?

Not necessarily. This would depend on a whole range of different lifestyle factors. However, it’s important for people to know that getting sick twice a year (in a mild way) is a good thing, because it helps to further develop your immunity.

What is the correct work protocol to follow when one is sick with a cold or the flu?

If you have the flu, you are contagious for the first 72 hours and should stay home to decrease the risk of infecting others. After that you are no longer contagious. If you have a cold, you are not contagious; the only reason to take off from work would be if the cold is quite severe and you are battling to be productive. In this case, it would be better to rest and improve before going back to work. If your cold is severe and you push yourself too hard, your condition may deteriorate.

When should you start using immune-boosters?

If you are going through a stressful period and experiencing mental fatigue, you should use immune-boosters. This can be any form of stress, emotional or physical (as in the case of sportsmen). You should also start taking them just before the flu season.

If I have a cough, does it mean my chest is infected?

Not necessarily – often quite the opposite. A cough is a reflex reaction which keeps the mucus from the postnasal drip out of your chest. Very seldom does this actually become bronchial in nature. Your doctor will be able to clarify whether or not your chest is infected, using a stethoscope.

Is there a link between high blood pressure and low immunity?

Untreated hypertension could be associated with low immunity, as it causes high inflammation levels in the body, which is a known stress on the immune system.


Dr Deepa Maharaj, Self Medication Association of South Africa’s Technical Committee chairperson and a qualified pharmacist.



Guest Writer

This post has been curated by a Longevity Live editor for the website.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.