This article was written by GP – Dr Nirja Joshi
Over the winter months, as temperatures fall and more respiratory viruses are in circulation, it is particularly important to look after your health. We have put together a collection of thoughts and ideas to help to optimise your physical and mental health over the winter period.
Covid-19 and Flu
Covid rates in the UK are currently increasing (again), affecting an estimated 1 in 30 people at present (1). Whilst the government does not require the public to test or isolate, if you do feel unwell with symptoms such as cough, fever, loss of smell or taste then it is advisable to do a lateral flow test at home. These can be obtained from local pharmacies, but are no longer free of charge. If you work in health and social care, or are due to go into hospital, you may be eligible for a free PCR test. With the newer strains of Covid-19, it is common to have other symptoms which can feel more like a common cold, such as sore throat, congestion, runny nose or sneezing. Your pharmacist or GP may advise taking a Covid-19 test with these symptoms.
Government guidelines do not specify that the public should isolate if they have symptoms of Covid-19 or a positive test, however, you may have guidelines specific to your line of work (2), so it is important to speak to your employer in this case. It is sensible to avoid close contact with others and especially be mindful of those who are clinically vulnerable for 10 days (2). There is more information on what to do if you test positive for Covid-19 here.
The Autumn booster campaign is underway for Covid-19 vaccinations. This is aimed at those over 50 years of age, frontline health and social care staff, those who are pregnant, and those with underlying medical conditions (3). If you are unsure if you are eligible, or would like to book a vaccination or find your nearest walk-in vaccination service, please call 119 for further advice. If you have not yet had your booster vaccine, you could have this now, there are more details on who is eligible here. If you are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine, the likelihood is that you would also be eligible for a flu vaccine. You can have these both together if you wish. There are new strains of flu each year and if you contract flu and Covid-19, it is possible to become quite unwell. Vaccinations remain one of the best forms of protection against these viruses.
The common cold
Most people would prefer to avoid getting viruses this winter. The best way to do this, is to avoid close contact with those who are unwell. If you have symptoms, remember to use the phrase ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ when you are sneezing or coughing. In addition, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. If you do have symptoms, the best things to help with getting over a viral illness are
- drink plenty of fluids
- take paracetamol and ibuprofen
- maintain good nutritional intake
It is common for people to have a viral infection and start taking a high dose vitamin C supplement – but does it work? Evidence shows that taking these supplements after being infected with the virus tends to have a variable impact on the duration of a common cold. One review of 30 studies showed that taking high dose vitamin c likely reduced the duration of a common cold by half a day (4). There does not seem to be any evidence about taking high dose vitamin c to reduce the likelihood of catching a cold in the first place (4).
Zinc lozenges taken within 24 hours of onset of symptoms has been found to reduce the duration of symptoms of the common cold at a dose of at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day. However there is no firm evidence to suggest taking zinc supplements will prevent a cold (5).
Between October and March in the UK, the public are advised to take a vitamin D supplement as there are fewer hours of daylight. This should be 10 micrograms/day (6). This can be bought over the counter and safely taken each day. This can be in the form of tablets, sprays or gummies, so it is now easier than it has ever been to take your vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for your physical health, mental health, bone health and your immune system. People at high risk of not getting enough vitamin D, all children aged 1 to 4, and all babies (unless they’re having more than 500ml of infant formula a day) should take a daily supplement throughout the year.
Keeping warm over winter is very important. With heating bills increasing and issues with the cost of living crisis, it is important to make sure that particularly the elderly and vulnerable stay warm. It is unfortunate that we have to detail these things, but it is vital given that so many will struggle with their bills. Ensure that you are wearing layers, layers are often better at keeping you warm compared to one thick layer. In addition, ensure that your head and feet are kept warm with a hat/socks to avoid heat loss. Hot water bottles can be helpful, but be mindful to not fill them with boiling water and if they are kept on the skin for too long, this can cause rashes or burns, so please ensure you are using a hot water bottle cover. The cold increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks, so keeping your home warm is important for your health (7).
Some of you may not experience these difficulties yourself, however, please do use this information to help elderly or vulnerable neighbours or relatives. There is support available from the government to help with energy bills this winter, find more information here.
It is most important to maintain a healthy diet over the winter months to ensure that you are eating wholegrains, fruits and vegetables to ensure you have a good intake of vitamins. Good nutrition will help the body’s immune system if you become unwell.
In winter, it can be more difficult to exercise with shorter days. We know that physical activity is important to maintain optimal physical and mental health. Think of ways to incorporate this to make it less difficult when energy levels might be low such as adding walking into your commute, or using online videos to exercise from home.
Sleep plays a role in a number of health outcomes – including our risk of falling ill and catching a cold due to it’s role in supporting the function of a healthy immune system. Poor sleep over a long period of time can lead to immunodeficiency (a dampened immune response) but even one night of bad sleep can impact our immune function, making us more susceptible to catching the common cold. Although we are approaching a busy social season, try to make time for good quality sleep where you can!
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes known as ‘winter depression, is when people experience a lower mood or lower energy as the seasons change to winter (8). Try to ensure you get as much natural sunlight as possible during the day to help reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms. It is important if you feel that this might be affecting you to consider ways to help such as medication or using a lightbox. There is more information about SAD here.
For some people, the winter months can be particularly lonely as it can be harder to leave the house and see others. If you are aware of anyone who is likely to be more isolated over these months, and consider how to check in on them. Age UK offer a telephone befriending service which can be a useful tool to share with any elderly relatives or friends.
- ONS. Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest insights: Infections [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 30]. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronaviruscovid19latestinsight
- NHS. When to self Isolate and what to do [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 30]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/self-isolation-and-treatment/when-to-self-isolate-and-what-to-do/
- NHS. How to get a booster dose of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 31]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-vaccination/how-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine/how-to-get-a-booster-dose/
- Douglas R. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. 2004 Oct [cited 2022 Oct 30]; Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10796569/
- Singh M. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 2015 Apr 30 [cited 2022 Nov 1]; Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/
- NHS. Vitamin D [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Oct 30]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/
- Age UK. how to stay healthy and warm this winter [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 30]. Available from: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/keep-well-this-winter/stay-healthy-in-winter/
- NHS. Seasonal Affective Disorder [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 30]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/overview/
How to stay well this winter was last modified: November 4th, 2022 by