Published: 22 November 2021. Written in by Cheryl Feedman.
As the weather turns frosty, it’s even more important to know the facts about your health. We asked a doctor to answer your questions on cold-weather wellness.
Our second Covid-19 winter is here. And while millions of us are double jabbed – or have already had boosters – there are growing fears of a winter health crisis, with rates of colds and flu on the rise, potentially as a result of lower immunity following successive lockdowns. Calls to 111 and GP visits are also on the up, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). If you haven’t had 2021’s ‘worst cold ever’ yet, chances are you know someone who has.
If all this makes you want to crawl under your duvet and stay there until March, don’t despair. Even in 2021, winter doesn’t have to be scary. Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Vitality, has the answers to your key health questions, to help you stay fighting fit till spring.
Why do we always get ill when we relax over Christmas?
We’ve all been there. You heave a sigh of relief, clock off work – then feel a tell-tale scratchiness in your throat. The traditional Christmas cold has arrived. So why do we get sick the second we switch off – or are we just imagining it?
Some studies support the theory that it could be down to the adrenaline boost you get when you work, which stimulates the immune system. Then, when adrenaline drops off as you relax, you might be left more vulnerable to infection.
Dr Patchava says: ‘Often, the lead-up to the holidays tends to be stressful, as you try to wrap things up for the end of year. During stressful periods, your levels of many hormones may change, including glucocorticoids [which fight inflammation], catecholamines [‘fight-or-flight’ hormones, including adrenaline] and growth hormones. When you suddenly stop, this can cause an imbalance in hormones – and impact your immune system, making you vulnerable to viruses and infections.’
What makes a real difference when you feel yourself getting sick?
Many of us reach for those vitamin C fizzy tablets at our first sneeze, but the jury is out on the exact benefits. Studies suggest vitamin C might help shorten a cold’s duration, but won’t stop you catching one.
The mineral zinc might also help, as some theories reckon it stops the rhinovirus multiplying. A recent large-scale research review suggests a supplement can reduce how long flu and cold symptoms last and help prevent infection, though more research is needed, particularly into dosage.
There’s evidence that taking the ‘sunshine’ vitamin might help, too: a 2017 UK study review found vitamin D protected against acute respiratory infections, including colds and flu. And with deficiency common in winter due to lack of sunlight, the NHS advises we consider supplementing with 10mcg daily from October to March.
In general, Dr Patchava says: ‘Staying well by eating a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, exercising regularly, and if you drink alcohol, doing so in moderation, are ways to prevent sickness in holiday season.
‘Common colds are caused by viruses, which can be spread through airborne transmission or contact with infected surfaces,’ she continues. ‘To protect yourself and those around you, staying home and isolating while you are sick, washing your hands with soap and water, and disinfecting common surfaces regularly can help.’
Once you’ve caught a cold, it usually lasts between 7 and 10 days. NHS advice includes sipping fluids to avoid dehydration, keeping warm, and resting – your cold-induced sleepiness is nature’s way of telling you to put on those festive pyjamas.
How can I distinguish between a bad cold, flu and Covid-19?
Classic cold symptoms include a runny nose, cough and sore throat, while flu can involve fever, muscle aches and a cough. However, it’s more complicated with Covid-19.
As the virus has mutated, so have symptoms. Early on, key signs included a persistent cough, fever and muscle aches, alongside more unusual symptoms such as loss of sense of taste and/or smell. Experts are now reporting that, with the Delta variant, it’s harder to tell the difference, with symptoms such as a runny nose more common. Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, who has tracked millions of cases via the Zoe Covid Study app, says: ‘We’re not getting classic symptoms nearly as much.’ If you’ve had two doses of the vaccine, for example, you can still catch Covid-19, but are less likely to report a fever or cough.
Dr Patchava says: ‘Even if you’ve had Covid-19 previously, and develop symptoms of the flu, you’re advised to isolate at home, socially distance and order a PCR test. It’s possible you could have re-contracted it, even if you’re vaccinated. Stay at home until you get your result, even if your symptoms are mild.’
The treatment for all these viruses is similar, and includes rest, drinking enough fluids and taking paracetamol to bring down a temperature. ‘Although the Covid-19 vaccines are doing a great job at reducing the number of serious infections and hospitalisations, you may still catch the virus and pass it on if you’re infected,’ adds Dr Patchava. ‘However, reassuringly, if you do catch Covid-19, data shows that people who are double vaccinated are less ill and get better quicker than those who haven’t yet had the vaccine. A double dose of the vaccine also makes you much less likely to get long Covid.’
Contact NHS 111 or your GP if you have an existing health condition and your symptoms are worsening.
How worried should I be about a winter health crisis?
Last winter, we weren’t exposed to as many viruses due to social distancing measures, potentially leaving our immune defences weaker. However, don’t panic – there are things we can all do to protect ourselves. Much of it is advice we already know: wearing a mask, hand-washing and avoiding crowded places. Getting outdoors and regular exercise are also thought to help bolster our immune defences.
Getting up to date with your jabs, for both flu and Covid-19, will also keep you as protected as possible. ‘Flu can be serious, and each year causes thousands of people to go to hospital and thousands of deaths in the UK,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘This year, even if you don’t normally get the flu jab, we would advise you to do so – more people getting the jab means fewer people will need treatment for flu at a time when hospitals are already under pressure.’
Why do we catch more bugs in winter?
There are various theories, including the idea that when we breathe in cold air, the blood vessels in our nose constrict, stopping white blood cells arriving to fight off germs. However, number one is simply the fact that we tend to be closer to other people, in crowded indoor spaces, during winter. Despite what your mum told you about leaving the house with wet hair, there isn’t hard evidence that being cold and wet increases your chances of getting sick.
It might feel our collective resolve is lessening as the pandemic cruises towards its second year. However, Dr Patchava says we need to keep up hand hygiene and social-distancing measures where possible, particularly in crowded spaces, to keep safe as winter sets in.
Why do we feel more tired when the days get shorter?
The moment the clocks go back, many of us struggle. Dark, chilly mornings and darker afternoons can make us feel like small animals who should be hibernating rather than enduring the daily commute.
In fact, although it might feel like it, we don’t need more sleep in winter. Tips for banishing winter tiredness include: opening your blinds as soon as you wake up to let in light, getting regular exercise, and sticking to a healthy diet (without bingeing on sugary carbs).
If you think you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – signs include a persistent low mood and lethargy – advice includes getting as much daylight as you can (plan lunchtime walks), sitting near a window when indoors and trying a light box, which simulates daylight and might encourage your brain to reduce levels of the sleep hormone melatonin and produce more mood-boosting serotonin.
‘SAD affects up to 3 in 100 people in the UK, and can be debilitating,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘If you think you may be affected, I’d advise speaking to your GP. It may be useful to have your bloods checked, too, as low levels of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and magnesium could contribute to the way you’re feeling.’
How can I manage winter worries?
It’s natural to worry about the impact of Covid-19 – it’s an ongoing massive change, and there’s no time limit on feeling anxious. The NHS has some simple tips, which can be easy to forget, including staying connected with people, doing things you enjoy and getting sufficient sleep.
When it comes to the bigger picture, there’s a limit to what we can control, and there’s evidence to suggest prolonged stress might impact immunity. So, rather than constant doom-scrolling, it might be better to try something relaxing, such as yoga, a mindfulness app or aromatherapy.
What are the signs of long Covid?
It’s thought that more than a million people in the UK have long Covid, meaning they still feel ill weeks or months after having the virus. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, breathlessness, chest pain, brain fog, joint pain, tinnitus (ear ringing) and depression.
‘Diagnosing long Covid is hard, as there’s no single test that can tell you if you have it, and it can come and go,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘There are two stages to what is commonly known as long Covid: ongoing symptomatic Covid-19 – symptoms that last 4-12 weeks; and post-Covid-19 syndrome – symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks and can’t be explained by another diagnosis.
‘If you think you may be affected by either, speak to your GP, who can help you access the care and support you might need, including advice on how to manage your symptoms at home. They may refer you to a specialist who can help with specific symptoms, such as a physiotherapist, dietitian, occupational therapist, cardiologist, neurologist or respiratory doctor, if your symptoms are severe.’
How can I avoid norovirus?
Winter isn’t only about stuffy noses and hacking coughs. Also known as the winter vomiting bug, this unpleasant contagious stomach virus causes vomiting and diarrhoea. The reason it’s worse in winter? Again, it’s thought to be down to spending more time indoors in close proximity to others, helping it spread.
‘As restrictions have eased, we’ve seen an increase in norovirus cases across all ages,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘As it spreads on contact with contaminated surfaces or those who are infected, it’s important to maintain good hand hygiene to prevent becoming infected.
‘Unlike coronavirus, alcohol gels don’t kill norovirus, so use warm water and soap. And wash any contaminated items, such as clothing, at a high temperature – at least 60℃. Often the infection passes within 2 to 3 days, and the advice is to stay at home and stay hydrated.’
I’ve heard people talk about RSV – is this just a cold?
Kids and babies are prone to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV – an infection that’s similar to a cold, but which can lead to a more serious lung infection known as bronchiolitis. If your little one is breathing fast, wheezing or grunting, speak to a doctor as soon as possible.
‘Although RSV is mostly seen in the winter in children, this year we’ve noticed cases arising earlier,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘It’s also likely that the RSV season will be of higher intensity than in previous years, potentially putting increased pressure on paediatric services. It’s critical that all parents and carers of babies and young children are aware of and vigilant about the signs of RSV and seek treatment early, to avoid hospital admissions and serious illness.’
Find out about Covid-19’s impact on kids’ mental health.