It’s that time of year again in Canada. The leaves have fallen, early evening darkness has arrived, and you’ve got a sinking feeling that your sore, irritated throat, is a sign of a cold or, even worse, the flu!

The total cost of treatment and lost productivity in Canada related to infectious diseases such as colds and the flu exceeds $12 billion annually. And while most of us can get a free vaccination to prevent it, there isn’t a similar quick fix method to prevent the common cold.

“Viral rhinitis — aka ‘the common cold’ — is one example of an upper respiratory tract infection (URI). As its name implies, it is caused by a virus, not bacteria,” says Dr. Nardine Nakhla, a pharmacist and professor at the University of Waterloo. “Because it is a viral infection, it cannot be cured, but symptom management can be employed.”

Influenza — also known as the flu — is another viral URI that is easily confused with the cold due to similar symptoms that appear in a similar fashion. If you have the common cold, you will likely experience symptoms such as a sore throat and a stuffy or runny nose. The symptoms tend to come on gradually over a few days and usually resolve in about a week. On the contrary, fever, body aches, and extreme tiredness are more common and intense with the flu. They tend to come on quickly and be more severe, lasting one to two weeks. Unlike the cold, which can happen any time of the year, the flu is generally seasonal, spanning across the fall months and into the springtime.

It’s important to remember that antibiotics, which are designed to fight bacterial infections, are not a viable treatment solution for viral infections such as the common cold or the flu. Fortunately, there are a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments available to help you manage the bothersome symptoms that may arise.

“Products that are available for the common cold provide relief by targeting the symptoms the virus is causing as opposed to eradicating the actual virus,” says Dr. Nakhla. “Using over-the-counter and non-drug treatments can make colds much more bearable by keeping symptoms at bay.” Among the most popular treatments are cough medications containing dextromethorphan and/or guaifenesin, analgesics and antipyretics that alleviate pain and reduce fever, as well as decongestants. Oral antiseptic solutions with antimicrobial properties have also shown to help treat infections that can cause sore throats due to viruses and bacteria.

When it comes to viral URIs, prevention is the best medicine. Recognizing the symptoms consistent with a viral URI will help you make more informed treatment decisions. Additionally, self-care strategies for prevention can have a huge impact on the severity of your infection. Stay away from sick individuals, get vaccinated for flu prevention, do salt water gargles, and practice good hygiene like engaging in regular handwashing as well as proper cough and sneeze etiquette.

For more information on selecting and appropriately using medications for cold or flu symptom relief, speak to your pharmacist.