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Common winter illnesses and how to deal with them

12:00am | & Health

WINTER is a prime time for illnesses, some serious and others less so, but all best avoided if possible. Prevention is always better than cure and there are things you can do to avoid some of the most common winter ailments. If you do succumb, there are also things you can do to ease the symptoms.

In this blog we’ll look at some common winter conditions listed on the NHS website and its advice on how to deal with them. In many cases you’ll be able to treat yourself, but you could also consult a pharmacist, ring the free NHS advice line on 111, or see your GP if you need to. It is especially important to seek medical advice if you have an existing underlying conditions which could be exacerbated by a winter illness.

Colds – most people catch a ‘common cold’ at some point in the winter, with a range of unpleasant (but not usually serious) symptoms. If you catch a cold, you should keep warm, rest and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. Cough and cold remedies from your local pharmacy can ease symptoms, but don’t expect antibiotics – they work against bacterial infections, not viruses like a cold. You can help prevent colds by washing your hands regularly and keeping the house and household items such as cups, glasses and towels clean, especially if someone in your house is ill. Use disposable tissues instead of fabric handkerchiefs to avoid constantly reinfecting your own hands.

Sore throat – Sore throats are common in winter and usually caused by viral infections. Changes in temperature, such as going from a warm, centrally heated room to the icy outdoors, can also affect the throat. One quick and easy remedy for a sore throat is to gargle with warm salty water. Dissolve one teaspoon of salt in a glass of part-cooled boiled water. It won’t heal the infection, but it has anti-inflammatory properties and can have a soothing effect.

Asthma – if you have asthma, it’s important to take extra care in cold weather. Cold air is a major trigger of asthma symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath. If you have asthma it’s best to stay indoors on very cold, windy days. If you do go out, wear a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth. Be vigilant about taking your regular medications and keep reliever inhalers close at hand.

Norovirus – Also known as the winter vomiting bug, norovirus is an extremely infectious stomach bug. It can strike all year round, but is more common in winter and in places such as hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Although unpleasant, it’s usually over within a few days. If you get norovirus, you must drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Young children and the elderly are especially at risk. ‘Oral rehydration fluids’ (from pharmacies) can reduce the risk of dehydration.

Painful joints – many people with arthritis say their joints are more painful and stiff in winter, though it’s not medically clear why – there’s no evidence that changes in the weather cause joint damage. There could be a link with the seasonal depression that many people suffer from during the cold, dark winter months. Everything feels worse, including medical conditions, when you’re depressed and pain can be experienced more acutely. Daily exercise can boost your mental and physical state. Swimming is ideal as it’s easy on the joints.

Cold sores – these are usually a sign that you’re run down or under stress. While there’s no cure for cold sores, you can reduce the chances of getting one by looking after yourself through winter. Try every day to do things that make you feel less stressed, such as having a hot bath, going for a walk or watching a favourite film – whatever brightens your day.

Cold hands and feet – ‘Raynaud’s phenomenon’ is a common condition that makes your fingers and toes change colour and become very painful in cold weather. Fingers can go white, then blue, then red, and throb and tingle. Small blood vessels in the hands and feet go into spasm, temporarily reducing blood flow. In severe cases, medication can help, but most people manage to live with their symptoms. If you suffer from Raynaud’s always wear warm gloves, socks and shoes when out in cold weather and avoid drinking caffeine or smoking, as both can worsen the symptoms.

Flu – potentially the most serious condition here is influenza (flu for short), which can be a major killer of vulnerable people. If you fall into this group, you should already have had your free annual flu jab on the NHS, which is the best way to avoid flu and can also lessen its severity if you do get it. Everyone over 65 is entitled to a free jab, as are those with a range of long-term health conditions. If you don’t get a flu jab and think you should, speak to your GP surgery. If you’re normally fit and well and you catch flu, you should rest, keep warm, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease aches and pains and lower your temperature, and keep hydrated. If you are in an ‘at risk’ group and catch flu, you must seek medical advice. For more on flu, click here.

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