From the flu to a hangover, Victoria Lambert asks the leading specialists how they deal with our most common winter complaints.
Rates of illness tend to soar during winter, but, according to the experts, many conditions can be prevented with hygiene, patience, vaccinations – and even a warm scarf. It’s worth thinking about treatments for seasonal ailments in advance too. So here’s how to prepare for a happy, and healthy, season.
Dr Ayesha Akbar, consultant gastroenterologist at St Mark’s Hospital, London, and spokesperson for the British Society of Gastroenterology
Dr Richard Russell, consultant respiratory physician in Lymington, Hampshire, and honorary medical advisor to the British Lung Foundation
GP Dr Harjeev Rai of Hessington Health in Hertfordshire, who is a cardiology specialist
Gastric bug? Put yourself in isolation…
Dr Akbar says: “Treat yourself by supportive care: paracetamol for cramps and fevers; plenty of fluids, and bland foods when you feel better.”
Diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fevers and bloating – all unpleasant, but it’s usually self-limiting and you should recover in one or two days. However, you won’t get the muscle aches of food poisoning.
Gastric bugs, including the norovirus, are contagious, so can spread fast at Christmas when we’re likely to shake hands or kiss more frequently. If you’ve been infected – or are caring for a child with the bug – take 48 hours off work and partying to stop the spread and wash hands regularly.
Scientists at Cambridge are testing an antiviral drug called Favipiravir, already thought to be effective against viruses that cause influenza, yellow fever and foot-and-mouth disease, and believe it could reduce and even eliminate the norovirus too, by causing it to self-destruct.
Don’t be a martyr to the sniffles – and spice up your sore throat
Dr Russell says: “Minor respiratory viruses are common from November to February. If you don’t have an underlying respiratory complaint, such as asthma, keep well hydrated and take paracetamol.”
For a sore throat, take medicated lozenges. Expect it to take five to seven days to get better. Try drinking honey and lemon in water, or gargle with soluble aspirin. Some patients get relief from a mix of 1/4tsp turmeric in warm water.
Dr. Rai suggests wrapping a scarf around the mouth to act as a barrier against the droplet infection that causes sore throat, and is carried in damp air.
If symptoms persist, says Dr Russell, and you feel more unwell (you’re losing weight, producing mucous that has changed colour, suffer chest pain or a high fever), go to the GP, as this might be a sign of developing a secondary condition such as pneumonia or another secondary bacterial infection like laryngitis or tonsillitis.
When it comes to hangovers…red wine and whisky don’t mix
Dr Rai says: “I recommend one ibuprofen and two paracetamol for the pain; strong coffee to give you energy, and an English breakfast or one equally rich in protein or fats. These will soothe the stomach and soak up acidic juices that cause that feeling of nausea. And drink lots of fluids.”
Avoid mixing drinks, especially red wine and whisky, which seems to be a particularly toxic combination for reasons not understood. And have a pint of water before bed. Alcohol is dehydrating which can cause headaches.
There is no way to avoid a hangover if you have to much drink – this was confirmed by research from Utrecht University in the Netherlands earlier this year. Says lead researcher Dr Joris Verster, “It’s not simply dehydration – we know the immune system is involved too – but before we know what causes it, it’s very unlikely we’ll find an effective cure.”
Sleep smart to deal with the effects of heartburn
Dr Akbar says: “Need immediate relief? Take an over-the-counter antacid.”
Stomach acid – produced to help digestion as a normal process – comes up through the valve at the bottom end of the gullet (lower oesophageal sphincter), resulting in a burning sensation. Seasonal heartburn is usually due to overeating – especially if you need to lose weight as extra pounds put pressure on the stomach. But stress can also be a factor, as can medications such as non-steroidial painkillers, smoking and drinking to much alcohol.
Lose weight, stop smoking and reduce your alcohol intake. Don’t eat too late at night; wait at least 90 minutes before sleeping after eating; and try over-the-counter antacids. Another tip is try raising the top end of your bed using bricks so that gravity helps keep acid down while you sleep. Lying on your left side may also help – a Philadelphia study of heartburn patients found that sleeping on the right side meant leaked stomach acid took longer to drain out of the oesophagus compared with sleeping on the left.
Your GP can test for Helicobacter pylori – a bacteria that can cause stomach symptoms, notably a gnawing abdominal pain, which is typical when your stomach is empty at night or a few hours after meals. This can be detected via a stool sample, and can be treated with antibiotics and antacids.
Build up your resistance to the flu virus
Dr Russell says: “I always get a flu jab.”
After the jab, expect cold symptoms as your body produces proteins (antibodies) that will form part of its immune system defence. But this is good: if you feel groggy, your body is learning what it must do to fight flu.
Flu jabs aren’t just for vulnerable groups (over 65s, say, or those with conditions such as asthma) or for carers and healthcare workers to prevent spread. Doctors suspect there’s a cumulative effect of the vaccination so that over time your resistance to many strains of flu will improve.
Beat food poisoning with salt and sugar
Dr Akbar says: “Rest the stomach, and when hungary, eat bland foods such as rice and toast.”
This is due to ingestion of bacteria/bacterial toxins, so good personal and food hygiene is the best defence. Symptoms are similar to other stomach bugs – diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fevers – but you may also suffer muscle pain and headache.
Avoid spicy foods and high-fibre foods, caffeine and dairy until symptoms settle. Drink plenty of fluids, ideally oral rehydration solutions or isotonic drinks to replace salts that are lost with diarrhoea. Half a teaspoon of sat and sugar in lukewarm water is a good start. Recovery takes up to 48 hours. If you see blood in your stool, have a pounding, racing, or skipping heartbeat, or can trace your sickness back to shellfish, mushrooms or canned food, seek medical advice.
Always cook food well, wash hands frequently and keep surfaces clean. Refrigerate/store food appropriately and avoid washing raw meat/poultry such as the Christmas turkey. Avoid cross contamination, too, so wash hands well after handling meat.
Turn and energy slump into an energy oomph
Dr Rai says: “I eat plenty of fruit; veg and protein, and keep carbs, sugar and fats low. A multivitamin such as Berocca or Redoxon helps too.”
No wonder we feel tired in midwinter; one in five of us suffer from Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD) due to lack of sunlight, which can cause lethargy and mood swings. Others spend too much time indoors, meaning we miss out on vitamin D, and eat more carbs.
Get your vitamin levels tested at your surgery as a supplement can help. Try a SAD lamp (see sad.org.uk), which may boost your mood. Keep levels of the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin up through exercise.