Health weapons against winter ailments
Winter is approaching - and while there may not be snow upon the ground yet, the temperatures are plummeting. It's tempting to rack up the central heating and stay inside, but most of us have to venture outside sometimes. Of course, many of us relish a bracing walk on a crisp, frosty morning too - and keeping up regular exercise is very good for your health with the right precautions. Don't forget that ice, snow and even frost make it easier to slip, so avoid winter falls by wearing stout shoes with good grip; by going out in the middle of the day, when morning ice has melted and you can see clearly; and by using a walking aid if necessary. Stock up on essential supplies now, to avoid having to leave home if the weather is really inclement. If it's really treacherous outside, close the door and curl up with a nice cup of tea and a good book!
Chapped skin - ouch!
Skin can suffer from any extremes - cold, wet, dry, hot or windy. Dry chapped skin can be itchy, sore and uncomfortable but also makes you prone to skin infections. The key is to moisturise, moisturise and then moisturise some more! Apply it several times a day, especially after you wash your hands. You don't need to put on gallons, but moisturiser only protects the skin for a few hours. It's worth avoiding any scent or colouring in your moisturiser if you're prone to eczema or inflamed skin - lots of pharmacies have moisturisers like Cetraben®, which are suitable for people with sensitive skin. Keep a big tub at home and a smaller pot in your bag. It may be worth considering a soap substitute cream, like aqueous cream (also available from pharmacies) to reduce the drying effect of soap.
Raynaud's and chilblains - chilly!
Two painful hand conditions - Raynaud's and chilblains - are more common in cold weather. To avoid them, keep warm - put gloves on before you go outside; keep your whole body warm, as this cuts the chance of your hands getting cold; wear layers for maximum insulation; and avoid getting wet, as this reduces the insulating effect of clothes. If you do get cold, avoid the temptation to warm up too fast (no standing with your hands on the radiator!), which can make chilblains worse.
Sore throat - when to worry?
Most sore throats are caused by viruses and clear up within a few days on their own. Paracetamol, ibuprofen and throat lozenges can ease your symptoms, even though they don't speed recovery. Do make sure you drink lots of fluids - if you're feverish you can get dehydrated, making the accompanying headache and tiredness worse.
Doctors look for certain 'red flags' which make it more likely you have tonsillitis or a bacterial throat infection which needs antibiotics. These include:
- Sore throat with no cough
- Painful swollen glands at the front of your neck
- White discharge on your tonsils if you shine a torch into your open mouth.
If you have three or four of these symptoms (two for a child), see your GP.
Coughs and colds
'You're going to tell me it's a virus, doctor, aren't you?' ask hundreds of my patients with coughs and colds - and they're usually right! Most coughs are caused by viruses - whether they're dry or chesty - that means antibiotics won't help and can do more harm than good. Honey and lemon may ease a tickly cough, but there's limited evidence that cough mixtures help. If you're feeling horribly bunged up, your pharmacist can recommend treatments to ease symptoms. If you're achy, regular paracetamol or ibuprofen can help (and will bring down fever, although the fever won't do you any harm). The same applies to children - in fact, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommends no over-the-counter cough and cold remedies should be given to children under six years old.
Do see a doctor if you have cough with acute shortness of breath, sharp chest pain when you breathe or coughing up blood or rusty sputum. You should also seek medical help if you have the lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - previously called emphysema or chronic bronchitis - or asthma.
If you're over 65 or have chronic health conditions like asthma, COPD, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, heart disease or stroke, you should get a flu vaccine every year in October-December. Carers are eligible too, as they're more likely to pass on the virus to older or vulnerable people who are more at risk of flu complications, like pneumonia. Since last year, healthy children aged two, three and four are also being offered immunisation for the first time, as a nasal spray rather than a vaccine. While most kids get over flu, they're particularly prone to catching it and passing it on to the rest of the family, including older members who may be at higher risk of complications.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.