Your guide to staying healthy this Christmas

Winter is setting in, fog is clouding the air, and inside the heating is on high, but something doesn’t quite feel right. It’s you. Runny nose? Itchy throat? Painful migraine? Simply run down?

Check out our top tips on how to recognise common winter illnesses such as cold and flu and how to tell them apart, as well as advice on having the flu jab, which is particularly essential if you are living with a long-term condition, over-65 or pregnant.

Both cold and flu are very common infections of the upper respiratory tract. Many people find it hard to tell from their symptoms exactly which they have, and contrary to myth, it’s not always children that get colds and men that get flu! Some children are at particularly high risk from the complications of flu.

So follow our simple guide and keep you and your family healthy this Christmas.

The symptoms of a common cold include a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, minor throat irritation, mild fever, a feeling that your ears are blocked and coloured mucus or nasal discharge.

These symptoms can last for 2-4 days and will need no specific treatment other than painkillers and other simple measures such as decongestant rubs or vaporisers. 

Flu (influenza) is a much more serious illness. In particular, seasonal flu is a highly infectious disease caused by a number of flu viruses.

In the UK, about 600 people a year die from a complication of seasonal flu. This rises to around 13,000 during an epidemic.

The symptoms of flu hit suddenly and severely, they include:

1. Irritation in the throat or lungs

2. A dry cough

3. High fever (usually 39ºC or above)

4. Shivering

5. Sweating

6. Exhaustion

7. Severe muscle aches 

8. Headache

9. Loss of appetite

A key difference between cold and flu is that the flu tends to make the whole body ache, whereas the common cold usually affects the nose and throat only.

The most likely viruses that will cause flu each year are identified in advance and vaccines are then produced to closely match them.  This year’s vaccine will protect against three types of virus.

Dr Jonathan Hildebrand, director of public health for NHS Kingston, said: “While the majority of people will only experience minor symptoms with flu, for some people the implications can be very serious.

“The best way to avoid flu is to get immunised, so if you’re in one of the at-risk groups then get in touch with your GP.”

You should have the seasonal flu vaccination of you are either:

1.Aged 65 or over

2.Live in a residential or nursing home

3.The carer of an older or disabled person

4.The frontline health or social worker

5. Pregnant.

Anyone can have the vaccination and even if you were vaccinated last year you should be vaccinated again this year. The vaccination is your best chance of protecting yourself against flu as your body starts making antibodies against the viruses about a week after the injection.

Some people are much more susceptible to the effects of seasonal flu. For them it can increase the risk of developing more serious illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia, or can make existing conditions worse.  In the worst case, seasonal flu can result in a stay in hospital or even death.

You are at greater risk from the effects of seasonal flu if you have a heart problem, kidney or liver disease, a chest complaint or breathing difficulties (including bronchitis or emphysema), lowered immunity, diabetes, a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy or if you have had a stroke or problem with your spleen.

Even if you have one of these conditions but feel completely healthy, you can arrange to see your GP or practice nurse now. The flu jab is available now from GP surgeries and is free on the NHS.

Children who contract flu should have lots of rest, as well as medicine to bring down any fever and plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. However if they have any of the above listed conditions then they should also have the vaccination.

In the meantime, follow our 5 easy protective measures against cold and flu

1. Wash your hands, and keep your fingers away from your eyes and nose.

2. Avoid close contact with cold sufferers.

3. Drink lots of fluids. This is essential to prevent dehydration. Hot honey and lemon drinks are a great way to soothe the throat and help to clear the nasal passages and sinuses. 

4. Get plenty of rest by sleeping for 7-8 hours per night. If you are ill stay at home until you feel better. Likewise if you have children who are sick, keep them at home. Kids spread germs around schools quickly.

5.Over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants and simple pain relievers may relieve some cold symptoms, but will not prevent, cure, or even shorten the illness. However, they can make you feel better!

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