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By Michael Wakeman

Now is the time of year when pharmacists will be dealing much more frequently with winter coughs and colds. With around 27 million workdays lost each year in the UK, clearly, it’s a serious issue for the economy as well as the health of our population in general.

As always, the more the pharmacist can do to provide advice and support for sufferers, the less impact on the overstretched doctor’s waiting room.

Over the counter medicines such as painkillers and decongestants will help alleviate symptoms. However, for many people already on a cocktail of medications, it puts more pressure on an overloaded immune system, and potentially further depletes essential vitamins and minerals.

Importantly, these remedies fail to address the issue of recurring colds. With the average Briton suffering from two to four colds annually, it makes sense to look at some preventative measures, as well as helping current symptoms, by using all the help we can from the powers of nature. New research suggests certain vitamins such as Cand D, plus specific herbal remedies, can lower the incidence and severity of the common cold.

Vitamin D

Check if the patient is taking a vitamin D supplement. This is an essential nutrient for the health of the immune system and is needed for all the population, especially at-risk groups. The minimum recommended daily intake by Public Health England is 10 micrograms. Research suggests vitamin D helps prevent and reduce severity and duration of URTIs.

Fruit & veg

Ensure the diet contains plenty of fruits and vegetables. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys nutrient intakes across all sectors of the population, especially women, are in dramatic decline. This will lead to a whole host of health issues, including those associated with poor immunity. Women suffer from more colds than men, partly perhaps because they tend to be around children.

Vitamin A, produced from beta-carotene found in colourful fruits and vegetables, is key for immune function; intake has reduced over the last nine years, partly due to low intake of these nutrient-dense foods. Rather than over-complicating advice to people who are likely to be feeling unwell, it’s helpful to advise eating as colourful a diet as possible.

Additionally, taking a daily multivitamin such as Alive! Immune Support Soft Jells which contains a unique blend of 26 fruits and vegetables, and immune-boosting nutrients such as vitamins A, C and D is suitable for all the family and children aged three and upwards.

Green tea containing EPGC can prevent viruses from multiplying.

Natural herbs

Look to natural herbs with the THR symbol for support. Licensed Medicinal Herbs such as Pelargonium sidoides are a great addition to a pharmacist’s medicine cabinet because their safety and efficacy are guaranteed. They can, therefore, be recommended with confidence. The herb Pelargonium is indicated for the relief of symptoms of the common cold and upper respiratory tract infections, which can help during the illness or as a preventative measure.

Other helpers

Reduce immune suppressors and include other herbal helpers. Clearly alcohol suppresses immunity as does a diet high in sugar, both of which should be avoided. Suggest the patient takes warming drinks such as green tea, containing epigallocatechin (EPGC), a compound that can fight bacteria and prevent viruses from multiplying; crucially they may have a preventative effect. Additional manuka honey and lemon may help congestion, and ginger either in a tea or freshly squeezed in warm water can be really soothing. Ginger has anti-inflammatory effects and may also relieve aches and pains. Even black tea is rich in antioxidants, which will help support immunity.

Optimal fluid

Ensure fluid intake is optimal. Many people are dehydrated generally making them feel sluggish. However, when in the grip of a cold or infection, having sufficient fluid intake is really going to help ease congestion. If there is a slightly raised temperature, the body requires additional fluids, because it will sweat more. Dehydration will make symptoms more troublesome. Warm lemon water helps the liver detoxify and also keeps all the mucosal surfaces of the body better lubricated.

In conclusion, remember that as pharmacists you can make a real difference within the community to both prevent and treat coughs and colds thus reducing the number of patients seeking GP advice and frequently being prescribed antibiotics which do not work for the majority of viral infections and worse still fuel antibiotic resistance.

Michael Wakeman is a pharmacist and healthcare consultant.

This article also appears in the November issue of Pharmacy Business.

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