Is It A Cold Or Flu? Ask NHS Direct’s New Symptom Checker!

The Guardian (10 December 2008)

Colds and flu calls to NHS Direct rise by 306%

Do I have a cold? Is it flu? Or are my symptoms serious enough that I should seek urgent medical attention?

Over the next couple of months many of us will unfortunately be struck down with either a bad cold or a dose of flu – and in fact NHS Direct has already experienced a 306% rise in callers  (from September 8 to December 7, 2008) – ringing about colds, flu, coughs and fever.

To help during this grim period, NHS Direct has launched a new symptom checker on its website ( to help sufferers check their symptoms, which can include anything from a sore throat, a cough, sinusitis (a blocked nose causing facial or forehead pain) and earache.

Recent NICE guidelines for respiratory tract infections set out how long anyone should expect symptoms to last¹ – for example cough: three weeks; sore throat: one week; sinusitis: two and a half weeks; earache: four days and common cold: one and a half weeks.

The new tool takes the protocols – used by NHS Direct call centre nurses to assess patients’ symptoms over the telephone – and have been adapted for the website for the general public to weigh up their own aches and pains.

Anne Joshua, associate director of pharmacy at NHS Direct says: “The tool helps with self-care and also helps to decide when professional advice is needed or if the condition is serious enough to seek urgent medical help.

“The website advice will set out the options for self care –whether a visit to a pharmacy to speak to a pharmacist is needed, or whether it is best to contact a GP and if necessary it might prompt you to go to A&E.”

Depending on the information provided by the user, the system may also offer a call back from NHS Direct with the facility to arrange a specific call back from a nurse advisor at a time to suit. An NHS Direct nurse will be able to advise and discuss any concerns that are individual to the caller.

Anne Joshua explained: “Users invited to click for call back know that they will speak to someone that has all the key information about their decision based on their responses to the tool, and they won’t have to explain it all again to an agent at the contact centre before being put through to someone that can help.

Additional information and external links are provided on the website to support the user with more detailed advice about the use of medicines to treat pain and fever associated with colds and flu.

“A wide range of over the counter medicines containing paracetamol and ibuprofen, plus various cough mixtures and throat pastilles, is available from pharmacies. It is best to stick to one product that suits your needs and to avoid taking preparations with similar ingredients resulting in inadvertent double dosing. It is important to discuss with your pharmacist which cold relief is best for you or your family or to check with NHS Direct via the call back service,” added Joshua.

The Colds & Flu Symptom Checker is a first step in offering a greater range of access to NHS Direct advice and support from call centre staff – it is also the first of many new Symptom Checkers to be introduced over the next few months. NHS Direct is already working with partner organisations including Net Mums, a unique local network for Mums (or Dads), offering a wealth of information on a national and local level, and a number of pharmacies to broaden the access to web based symptom checkers to the public.

For further information please contact Ann Grain on 0207 599 4223 or the press office mobile on 07876 596932.

Notes to Editors
Cough and cold medicines (containing painkillers) – advice from the MHRA

  1. It is best to stick to just one medicine for coughs and colds, as many medicines have the same ingredients and it is possible to overdose by taking more than one type.
  2. Always readthe label/leaflet carefully. Keep to the recommended dose of your medicine and stop taking it when you feel better.
  3. A wide variety of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines is available to treat coughs and colds and many of these contain paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  4. It is best to avoid taking medicines when you are pregnant; however paracetamol is safe when taken at the recommended dose.
  5. If you continue to feel unwell despite the medicine or if you are not sure that the medicine is helping, you should contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or see your pharmacist or GP.

Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines (VRMM), MHRA

Managing symptoms
You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve headache, aches and pains and fever.
You may also wish to ask your pharmacist for advice about over-the-counter remedies such as cough medicines, decongestants or throat pastilles.
If you are taking medicines for any other condition it is important to check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any over-the-counter remedies.
Remember – always check the instructions on the bottle or packet and never take more than the recommended dose. If you are not sure, ask your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist for help and advice.
NICE guidance recommendations

¹ NICE Guidance
Use of antibiotics for Respiratory Tract Infections in adults and children
Clinical Guideline 69: issued July 2008

* NHS Direct handles over 22,000 calls a day.  That’s over 8 million calls a year.
* The NHS Direct Online website ( receives around 21 million visits a year.
* NHS Direct Interactive is available to around 18.9 million households with either Sky Digital TV or Freeview, 85% of all TV homes.
* NHS Direct employs over 3,000 staff, over 1,200 of whom are trained nurses.
* NHS Direct receives approximately £139 million funding annually from the Department of Health to run the 0845 4647 telephone service, the website and digital TV services.

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