Coronavirus – or Covid-19 – continues to dominate the news, and older people or those with pre-existing health conditions need to be very aware of it and take all precautions against catching it.
But there are also a number of other common winter illnesses, and we mustn’t forget about those too. We’ve all become acutely aware of our own health, and the slightest symptoms can tend to ring alarm bells much louder than usual during the pandemic.
Of course it could just be that you’ve caught a common cold or developed a tickly cough – things that wouldn’t particularly worry you in normal times. It’s important to be aware of symptoms and to get a Covid-19 test of you’re at all worried, but it’s equally important not to panic.
Fortunately, many of the things we’re doing to guard against coronavirus will also protect us against other winter ailments. Measures like social distancing, frequent hand sanitising and wearing face masks give good protection against other illnesses too. On balance, you’re probably less likely to catch a common winter illness this year because of the measures we’re already taking against a previously uncommon one.
But it’s still important to be aware of other winter illnesses, including how to avoid them and how to treat them. Remember, if you fall ill and become concerned for your health you can ring the free NHS advice line on 111 or phone your own GP surgery, but only go there in person if they ask you to. Here are some common winter ailments:
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, but don’t overdo it.
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 socially-distanced 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.
Seasonal 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. Flu symptoms are very similar to those of coronavirus – running a temperature, experiencing aches and pains, and having a persistent cough – so if you experience these you should seek medical advice and get a Covid-19 test.
l Remember, if you have any health concerns, you can call the NHS 111 advice line 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, or use the NHS 111 online service.