Stay clear of winter ailments

Stay clear of winter ailments

Stay clear of winter ailments

First published in Health

In the run-up to Christmas, the last thing you want is to get ill. Lisa Salmon asks the experts what to do if you get the flu.

By Lisa Salmon.

The cheery festive news is that cases of flu are low for the season. But before you get too complacent, bear in mind that GPs' surgeries are still busy dealing with plenty of bad cough and cold complaints.

There's currently nothing too serious in circulation, according to Dr Maureen Baker of the Royal College of General Practitioners. But she stresses this could change at any moment, given the rapid spread of viruses and infections.

Is it flu or just a cold?

Flu cases are currently low, but it's still relatively early in the season, warns Dr Baker.

"We certainly can't say there won't be flu around this year, although we don't have any indications that it's likely to be much of a problem over the Christmas period, so that's good news," she says.

There's some evidence that flu likes colder weather, possibly connected to the nose being less effective at keeping germs out when it's cold. So there's a chance the current low flu rate could be connected to the milder temperatures.

"It can be hard to tell the difference between flu and a cold," explains Baker. "It depends on the strain."

While those unlucky enough to get flu may not even realise (if it's a mild case), sufferers usually experience fever, aching and the sense that it's 'more than a cold'. But it can be difficult to self-diagnose as, for example, some flu strains will cause a runny nose and others won't.

While flu cases are low, and there don't appear to be many cases of the more serious swine flu around, Dr Baker is still keen to see more a higher proportion of people receiving the flu vaccine.

"We would like more in the 'at risk' groups to come forward," she says. "In particular I'm quite concerned about the veritably low rate of vaccination in pregnant women. It's not too late."

In fact, the Royal College of GPs circulated a bulletin to GPs last week reinforcing the message that while flu is below baseline levels, it's a good time to urge patients in high-risk groups, such as the over-65s or those with a serious medical condition, to take up the offer of free flu vaccines on the NHS.

Watch out for high fever Baker says there are plenty of coughs, colds and minor respiratory tract illnesses around at the moment, which is typical for this time of year.

"While there are no bugs that are causing particular worry, there are still plenty around, and surgeries are very busy," she says.

"What we always say is if you or a child seems more ill than you'd usually expect, get it checked out.

"If something starts off as a cough or cold, then progresses so the child or person seems very much more ill with a very high fever, listlessness, exceptional tiredness and so on, it's perfectly reasonable to go to the doctor."

If you don't feel ill enough to call a doctor or NHS Direct (0845 4647), Baker says the best advice for those with a cold or flu-type virus is to stay warm, drink plenty of fluids, take paracetamol or ibuprofen and wait for it to get better.

It's also worth stocking up on over-the-counter cold and flu remedies before the holidays. Pharmacists can help deal with basic ailments or refer those with more serious conditions on to their GP or hospital if necessary.

"At Christmas, people congregate at family gatherings, churches, shops and so on, so whatever bug's going round has more chance to spread," warns Baker.

"Good hand hygiene is particularly important to help stop the spread."

Don't become sick at Christmas Norovirus, often known as winter vomiting virus, can affect up to a million people a year in the UK, with symptoms including the sudden onset of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Some people also suffer raised temperatures, headaches and aching limbs.

The Royal College of GPs say the virus has not been a major problem so far this year - although outbreaks can occur very quickly, as the complaint is extremely infectious.

Dr Roger Henderson warns: "Dehydration rather than the virus itself is particularly dangerous. The loss of both water and essential minerals prevents the body from functioning normally and can cause potentially serious or even fatal complications."

If you think you have the norovirus, consult your GP. For mild cases, doctors recommend fasting for around a day and drinking plenty of fluids.

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