Colds are among the most common of all winter illnesses, and many of us are likely to contract a cold virus at some stage during winter. However, what most people do not realise is that it is not the cold virus itself but the immune system’s response to the virus that makes us feel unwell. The virus attacks the back of the nose and throat and the body responds by flooding these areas with white blood cells and chemical messengers. These set off the symptoms we associate with the common cold, such as a blocked nose, sore throat and headaches.
There is currently no cure for the common cold so the best treatment is prevention, where possible, by washing hands frequently and keeping surfaces clean—especially when you or somebody around you is already infected. However, there are a number of over the counter treatments to help minimise symptoms:
- Painkillers: Paracetamol, Ibuprofen and Aspirin are effective in treating fevers and minimising painful symptoms.
- Decongestants: Available in tablet form and as nasal spray, decongestants reduce the swelling in the nasal passages to ease breathing.
- Zinc: Taking zinc supplements within 24 hours of developing cold symptoms has been shown to speed up recovery time.
- Other remedies include drinking plenty of fluids, steam inhalation and nasal saline drops for a blocked nose. Menthol sweets and gargling with salt water can also help ease a sore throat.
Although symptoms are often similar to the cold, albeit more severe, influenza (flu) is caused by a different group of viruses. Symptoms include a fever, headache, aching muscles, tiredness, chills, a chesty cough, blocked nose and loss of appetite. Many of the available treatment options are the same as for the cold. Staying hydrated and well rested are the most important things you can do, whilst painkillers can reduce discomfort and lower a high temperature.
People at greater risk (such as pregnant women, the elderly and those with a weakened immune system) may be offered the antiviral medications Tamiflu or Relenza. Although these medications will not cure flu, they will prevent the virus from multiplying in the body, reducing the severity of symptoms. Due to the seasonal nature of the virus, flu vaccinations are available
on the NHS every winter for anyone in these high-risk groups.
Despite its reputation as the dreaded winter vomiting bug, it is possible to contract the norovirus all year round, however, it remains more common during the winter months. The highly contagious virus is the most common stomach bug in the UK, causing vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, a high temperature, aching limbs and stomach cramps. Other than a risk of dehydration, the norovirus is not dangerous, and most people will make a full recovery within a few days. Here are some measures you can take to minimise discomfort and avoid spreading the infection:
- Drink fluids: The main risk of the norovirus is the possibility of dehydration. If you experience lightheadedness, a dry mouth and eyes, dark concentrated urine and a headache when infected, it is likely that you are dehydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids (even when vomiting continues)—and in severe cases rehydration sachets—can solve this.
- Eat easily digestible foods: You may not feel like eating at all when you have the norovirus, but when you do eat, choose foods that are easily digestible, like rice, soup, pasta and bread.
- Stay at home: If you have the norovirus, you should avoid contact with others as far as possible so as not to spread the infection. Once you are infected, there is little your GP can do so it is best to stay home from work or school and rest. It is recommended that you stay at home until 48 hours after symptoms have passed and you are no longer contagious.
For the UK’s 5.4 million asthma sufferers, cold weather is a key trigger for asthma attacks. Inhaling cold air can lead to wheezing and shortness of breath, while contracting a cold or flu virus can also make asthma significantly worse. However, there are a number of steps you can take to manage asthma over the winter season:
- Take preventer medicines: It is very important that asthma sufferers take their preventer medications diligently during winter. This will minimise the likelihood of attacks triggered by the cold weather.
- Use a reliever inhaler: If you know that the cold air worsens your asthma symptoms, take a puff of your reliever inhaler before going outside in winter. Make sure you also carry it with you at all times and take an extra puff before exercising in cold weather.
- Keep warm: It is especially important for asthma sufferers to wrap up warm during the winter—particularly around the chest and throat area—and to take extra precautions
- when exercising.