Health: Doctors urge patients with flu to treat themselves

Patients with colds and flu are clogging up GPs' surgeries and preventing those with more serious conditions getting treatment. A campaign launched yesterday seeks to persuade people to stay away from the surgery this winter. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, reports.
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Up to half of patients consulting GPs during the peak winter colds and flu season seek treatment for conditions that doctors can do nothing about.

The 4 million adults who made the trip to the surgery last winter with "flu" symptoms - aches, pains, coughs and sneezes - could have saved themselves the trouble by stocking up on over-the-counter remedies, doctors say.

Antibiotics, which tackle bacteria, are useless against colds and flu, which are caused by viruses. That leaves doctors able to offer only the same advice as pharmacists - drink plenty of liquids and take an over- the-counter flu remedy.

The Doctor Patient Partnership, a collaboration between the British Medical Association and the Patients' Association, backed by pounds 3m of Government funding, launched its flu campaign yesterday, urging people to stock up on paracetamol and cough medicine before the winter.

Dr Simon Fradd, chairman of the partnership, said: "Unfortunately, we don't have a magic treatment for colds and flu. Antibiotics don't work. All we can give is medicine to treat the symptoms which people can buy for themselves."

He denied doctors were seeking an easier life by turning patients away "This is not about withdrawing services, it is about helping the public to treat themselves better."

Dr Fradd said the "sad thing" was that many people came into the surgery having had flu for four or five days and had taken nothing for it. Early treatment helped reduce discomfort.

One trick, when symptoms were bad, was to take aspirin and paracetamol in combination. Dr Fradd said: "They are totally different drugs and they work in different ways. Aspirin reduces inflammation and takes away the aches. Paracetamol is a painkiller that enables tolerance of the symptoms."

Neither drug may be taken more often than once in six hours but combined they can be alternated every three hours.

Most people would take a few days to start to feel better and should treat themselves for at least a week before ringing the surgery. Dr Fradd added: "Of course, if you or your child have very severe symptoms, become unduly short of breath, cough up blood or large amounts of green or yellow phlegm, you should call your GP for advice."

Cathy Gritzner, general manager of the Patients' Association, said the campaign was necessary to ease the pressure on GPs and allow the seriously ill to be treated more quickly and given more time. "We know a lot of patients have difficulty getting to see their GPs, with long waits for appointments. If people with colds and flu can treat themselves those who are not at all well can get to see the GP more quickly and obtain the help they need."