Seasonal diseases and the Andy Murray effect

Here on patient.info we help millions of people each month with health information and advice, and having such a comprehensive database of information on just about every health topic you could imagine, it puts us in a good position to analyse the health interests of the nation over an extended period of time.

We all know to expect to come down with a cold as winter draws in, and those that suffer from hay fever will dread the spring and the running eyes and blocked noses it brings, but what other health trends are out there?

The method

Dr Hayley Willacy Dr Hayley Willacy, Clinical Content Editor - patient.info

I started by asking Dr Hayley Willacy, our Clinical Content Editor, to give us a list of the seasonal diseases she sees in her practice throughout the year and then analysed how the traffic to those pages changed between June 2012 and November 2013. To do this, I divided the number of visits that a particular term received, by the total number of visits the entire site received that day. This gave me a percentage to work with. This meant that the data would account for seasonal changes in traffic that occur throughout the year (for example, internet traffic falls over Christmas, while people are too busy opening presents and eating turkey).

Summer seasonal diseases

So, after a long cold winter, spring arrives and the earth begins to warm, animals appear from hibernation, the plants come back to life and flowers bloom – more than 10 million Britons fight hay fever in any way they can.

Hay fever comes in three waves:

  • Tree pollen – late March to mid-May
  • Grass pollen – mid-May to July
  • Weed pollen – June to September

Hay fever graph

The interesting thing about hay fever is that it actually peaks before the height of summer in July and then drops off dramatically. So, why is this? Well for a start, July is the only month with a crossover in two kinds of pollen active at the same time, which accounts for the huge jump, so that may account for the peak, but what about the drop off soon after? This may largely be down to the fact that many people go on holiday in August and head down to the beach where the wind coming in from the sea blows the pollen inland. However, another possibility is that everyone came to our site in July looking for information, got what they came for, and didn't need to come back again in August!

The other thing that comes hand in hand with summer is of course the sun, and in Britain, we tend to go mad at the sight of the big yellow thing in the sky and don't do enough (or generally anything) to protect ourselves. In fact, when we ran a poll in April 2013, less than a quarter said they always use sun cream, with nearly half saying that they rarely or never use it at all, which inevitably leads to sunburn and prickly heat rash. Well done Britain!

Sunburn graph

So, you can see here that sunburn isn't quite as big a problem as prickly heat rash, perhaps because people are pretty sure about what to do if they get burnt, but it's a pretty predictable result. The only notable thing about this graph is that summer 2012 was pretty dire … and it shows in that barely anyone bothered looking for information on sunburn.

So, what else ruins summer? Insect bites and stings of course! Here you can see that insects are not fazed by bad weather and will ruin even the poorest of summers, with two nice big peaks in both years while thankfully dying off in winter. However, you can see by comparing the average temperature that insects are still affected by the weather, and a warmer summer resulted in more insect bites and stings.

Insect bites and stings graph

And so on to something a bit more unusual. Dr Hayley suggested tennis elbow as a typical summer condition, with more people outside playing sport and inevitably overextending themselves. Does our data back up this theory?

Tennis Elbow graph

The first thing you'll notice is that tennis elbow doesn't follow the same pattern as the other conditions, with a much more even distribution throughout the year. The second thing is the huge spike in the data in July 2013 … What could possibly cause so many people to end up with tennis elbow so suddenly? Oh yeah, this guy:

Andrew Murray - causer of tennis elbow epidemic

Well done Andy, you won Wimbledon, but at what cost? Inflammation of the elbows of thousands of Britons. I hope you're happy!