Patience is a virtue. This is certainly true but our society is not really structured in such a way as to promote this virtue. We want it all and we want it right now. Whether it’s what we’re planning to eat or what show we’re planning to watch, companies know we’re impatient and bend over backwards to provide the consumer with the immediacy they demand. Cold and flu tablets are, in a lot of ways, a reflection of the immediate gratification that we crave. Cold and flu tablets won't help you heal up any faster but they can help to minimise many of the uncomfortable symptoms of a cold or flu, possibly allowing you to power through any crucial work or social gathering you simply can’t miss out on.
The common cold and flu are viruses. Viruses need to ‘run their course’, as the saying goes, because a virus is way more invasive than bacteria. With bacteria, it attacks your body’s cells from the outside. There are two types of antibiotics that can be used to stop bacterial infections. Some simply work by slowing down the growth of bacteria and impeding its ability to grow and reproduce. The other, actually kills the bacteria, by destroying the bacteria’s cell walls. The problem with viruses is that they don’t have cell walls. They cleverly guard themselves with a protective protein coat. Beyond just that, viruses cause further trouble to treatment as they actually move into, live in and make copies of themselves within your body’s cells. Rather than reproducing on their own, like bacteria, viruses attach themselves to healthy cells in order to make new viruses. This is the main reason why antibiotics don’t work as a treatment against the common cold and flu. Throw in the fact that there are more than 200 viruses that provoke cold-like symptoms, each genetically striving to evade destruction and you start to get an idea of why there is no quick fix for the dreaded cold.
So, what’s actually going on when one of these nasty viruses comes knocking on your nose:
- Under Attack: Once the respiratory virus sources its new home within the nose, as mentioned before, it binds to the healthy cells there. Thankfully, common cold viruses don’t seem too concerned with destroying your cells, which many other viruses quite enjoy, but they are certainly bent on creating more of themselves and venturing out to take root in other people’s noses. This is a key reason why it is good to avoid others whilst suffering from a respiratory virus, as you can be highly contagious whilst suffering from symptoms.
- Cells in Distress: The moment your cells become aware of an intruder, your immune system immediately contacts other cells with a warning protein known as cytokines. Your white blood cells, vessels and brain, all pick up on these cytokines and immediately target where the virus is taking root.
- Dilation: The first reaction to the warnings is your blood vessels, which widen. This has the effect of pouring more blood and thus more white blood cells into the problem area to battle the virus. An unfortunate side effect of this is that any of the impacted areas will become puffy, red and filled with fluid. Hence the runny nose and discomfort of the cold and flu.
- White Cells, Fight! White blood cells are your special forces unit when it comes to tackling a virus. They serve to further increase the size of the blood vessels. This will not only increase the discomfort for yourself as the targeted area becomes increasingly hotter and wetter but the virus will have a harder time taking hold in such uncomfortable conditions.
- The Great Flush: All these swelling vessels make for a wet and high pressure environment, so it’s no wonder that your nose can feel like a tap when a cold and flu virus appears. As frustrating as it can be, this is your body’s way of flushing all of the used white cells, the virus and any excess fluid out of the body. If it’s a nasty virus you will tend to see the fluid become increasingly green and less clear the longer a cold lasts. This colour is generated by your white cell’s protein, which is being used to fight the virus.
With a better understanding of what’s happening in the body when you’re suffering from cold and flu viruses, let's explore where cold and flu tablets fit into the battle against cold and flu symptoms.
How do cold and flu tablets work?
Cold and flu tablets are often made up of a variety of decongestants, pain relievers, antihistamines and cough suppressants. Hence their popularity, despite not destroying viruses. It’s not surprising that hundreds of millions of dollars is spent each year in Australia on cold and flu tablets, when they can offer relief against such debilitating symptoms.
The decongestion element of cold and flu tablets works to counter the widening of the vessels, which your body has implemented to fight the virus. Ingredients such as phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine narrow the blood vessels, which can bring down swelling in the nose, allowing you to feel less congested. It’s not killing the virus but your head doesn’t have to feel so stuffy while your body fights it. Obviously, narrowing blood vessels can come with its own risks, so if you are prone to high blood pressure or have pre-existing heart conditions it is important that you speak to your pharmacist before taking any cold and flu tablets.
In Australia, if you are looking to purchase cold and flu tablets containing pseudoephedrine, these will require a prescription. Cold and flu tablets containing phenylephrine can be purchased at supermarkets, as well as pharmacies.
Cold and flu symptoms are often very similar to allergy symptoms so some cold and flu tablets will contain antihistamines. These, along with cough suppressants can often make you drowsy and should typically be used as night time cold and flu tablets.
The last potentially main ingredient to consider in cold and flu tablets is paracetamol. Paracetamol is a pain reliever, which can be great when fighting cold and flu symptoms but great care must be taken to stick to recommended dosages to protect your general well being and the health of your liver.
Again, cold and flu tablets won’t heal you of viruses or help you develop patience but they can work effectively to manage symptoms and keep you moving when a virus strikes. Make sure that you consult your pharmacist to choose the option which best suits your symptoms or the health needs of your family.