Local pharmacies can help with more than you may think, as Neil Hamilton explains…

PH specialist Neil Hamilton is a Consultant Pharmacist within the Sheffield Pulmonary Vascular Disease Unit at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

People’s positive experiences of community pharmacy during the coronavirus pandemic has raised expectations of what their local pharmacy can offer them. 

Pharmacy teams work with other professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to give you the best possible care as part of the local healthcare team.  The range of clinical services provided by community pharmacies has expanded significantly in recent years, not least with cholesterol checking, blood pressure monitoring and of course vaccination.

This year, more than ever before, you should give yourself the best protection against both COVID-19 and flu, by ensuring that you are vaccinated against both conditions.  Colder weather and darker nights mean increased social contact indoors, which favours transmission of respiratory viruses.  Both COVID-19 and flu have the potential to cause serious illness and hospitalisation, especially to those clinically vulnerable. 

NHS England has recently undertaken some survey work, which showed that some people are under-estimating the combined threat of COVID-19 and flu this winter.  Nearly a third of those surveyed were unaware that both can circulate at the same time, and over a quarter did not realise that flu can be fatal.

Not many people caught flu last winter, so there isn’t so much natural immunity in the population this time around.  In addition, we can all socialise with less restrictions this winter, so vaccines will be vital in protecting our loved ones and us.

Making sure everyone who is eligible has the flu vaccine as well as the COVID-19 booster has become a priority for the NHS and there are national advertising campaigns reminding everyone, with very good reason. 

Flu, like COVID-19, can be an extremely debilitating and unpleasant viral illness for the fittest in society and unfortunately those people with other conditions will fare even worse.  Having pulmonary hypertension may not only put you at greater risk of catching flu or COVID-19, but it will have a far greater impact on you. 

Indeed, your body may really struggle to fight it off and this will almost inevitably have an impact on your breathing.   I cannot emphasise enough how sensible it would be for PH patients to ask their GP, nurse, pharmacist or specialist centre about both jabs. 

Much of what we have heard so many times regarding reactions to COVID-19 vaccines apply also to the flu jab.  Not many people have serious reactions or side effects, but some people feel a bit ‘fluey’ for a day or two.  This can often be easily controlled with a few doses of paracetamol if necessary.  This year’s flu jab programme is the largest in history, with it being offered to 35 million eligible patients.  Once again this year, there is an egg-free flu vaccine, which is great news for those with allergies or who are vegan.

The flu jab is available free on the NHS to people who:

  • are 50 and over (including those who’ll be 50 by 31 March 2022)
  • have certain health conditions
  • are pregnant
  • are in long-stay residential care
  • receive a carer’s allowance, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick
  • live with someone who is more likely to get infections (such as someone who has HIV, has had a transplant or is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis)
  • frontline health or social care workers

Even if you don’t fit any of this NHS criteria, I know my local pharmacy is selling private flu jabs for only £10, which is hopefully not too expensive for most to afford.

For anyone with PH unfortunate enough to come down with a nasty cold, or even flu, the local pharmacy should be your first stop for helpful advice. 

Not only is your pharmacist available without an appointment, but pharmacies are usually open longer hours than a GP surgery, so should be much more accessible. 

The pharmacist will be able to advise you which cold/flu remedies will be best for you.

In terms of PH-specific advice, I would advise against patients with PH taking decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (found in Sudafed and other products) as this constricts blood vessels. 

I also advise to avoid anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen.  Whilst one-off doses may be harmless, these can cause problems with your kidneys and possibly worsen breathlessness. 

Whenever you seek advice over the pharmacy counter, it is important that you take along an up-to-date list of current prescribed medicines so that the pharmacist can avoid any potential interactions. 

Although I have mostly talked about the upcoming winter, pharmacy teams work with other professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to give you the best possible care as part of the local healthcare team on a whole range of other themes.  So, remember to ask your pharmacist for advice across a whole range of healthcare themes.”

Pharmacists train for five years in the use of medicines and many pharmacies have a private consultation room where you can discuss issues without being overheard.