A top Ulster pharmacist today urged sufferers of traditional winter coughs, colds and flus to make their local chemist the first port of call for treatment, rather than the family doctor.
Raymond Anderson, who runs two pharmacies in Portadown, said people can overlook the expertise of their nearest chemist and instead go to their GP with minor ailments such as coughs and sniffles or the flu.
The pharmacist of 27 years experience said anyone suffering should call in to see a pharmacist for advice first.
"A community pharmacist is the best point of advice and if we think it's a more major problem then we'll be only too glad to advise you to see your GP," he said.
"A pharmacist is the best person to advise you on what medicine is needed to treat the symptoms of colds, coughs and sore throats. Colds and flus are viruses so prescribed antibiotics will not treat them."
Colds and flus occur all year round but are more common in winter months. Both are caused by viruses which are spread when infected people sneeze or cough, releasing infected saliva into the air.
Decongestants can be taken for a stuffy nose and cough medicines, lozenges and throat sprays will also ease symptoms.
Having the flu is more severe on the body and symptoms often develop much more quickly.
Mr Anderson, who is president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland, said any pharmacist would have the skills to deal with easing the symptoms of a bad flu.
"I was told once about the '£50 test' as a good way of telling the difference between a bad cold and a flu," he said.
"If you have the flu and are lying in bed, you wouldn't get out of that bed if someone offered you a £50 note to do it.
"If you just had a cold, you'd have no problem getting out for the cash.
"It's a crude test but a good example of just how bad a flu can make you feel.
"A flu is more debilitating and leaves the person feeling completely washed out.
"It causes muscle pain, weakness, sweating and fluctuating temperatures. You need to drink plenty of fluids."
Mr Anderson said there would be some flu cases when the GP is the best professional to refer to, such as in asthma sufferers.
"Generally speaking, a flu in the average healthy person can be treated in a pharmacy," he added.
"Again, the pharmacist is the best point of first contact and they can tell you if you need to see a GP."
The pharmacist said he did feel at times that the public did not fully understand the powers of his profession.
"Personally speaking I have found that the public can sometimes underestimate the skills and knowledge of a pharmacist.
"So often people think of their doctor first and not the pharmacist," he said.
"Every one of us has trained for four years, looking at all aspects of medicine. We have then done another practical year on top of that looking at its impact.
"After five years of training, pharmacists have the expertise to establish if something is serious and where best to direct the patient to.
"Community pharmacists are an integral part of the Health Service. We know the right medicine for the right person for the right ailment at the right dosage."
Mr Anderson also highlighted how some patients tend to go to their GP for a prescription to treat winter sicknesses because they are entitled to free prescriptions - but this is no longer the case.
"A new scheme trialled in Banbridge and Craigavon has since been expanded. It means that a person entitled to free prescriptions can now speak to their pharmacist and get the same treatment on free prescription without having to have it prescribed by their GP."
How to look after yourself with a cold or flu
Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine
Anti-histamine tablets and nasal sprays are an alternative treatment
Coughs and sore throats can be relieved with cough medicines and lozenges
You can also use antiseptic or local anaesthetic throat sprays, which will help soothe sore throats and ease pain
Drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, such as water or fruit juice
Also, avoid drinking alcohol while taking medicines containing paracetamol
Wrap up and keep warm - layers are the best way to keep warm outdoors
Take paracetamol to relieve any pain
When to see your doctor
If you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks or begin to experience a shortness of breath, chest pains, or if you already have a chest condition
Flu carries an increased risk of complications and serious illness for older people over 65, and people with a long-term medical conditions
Having the flu is more severe than a when you have a cold. Recovery from the common cold usually occurs within a week, the severe stage of flu usually lasts three to five days, followed by up to three weeks of post-viral tiredness
If your symptoms persist for longer than a week or become very severe, see your GP