Why your immune health matters more than ever this winter

    Published: 29 September 2021. Written by Tom Ward.

    Social restrictions have left everyone with lower immunity than usual. With flu season on the horizon, it’s worth safeguarding yourself.

     After almost two years of various lockdowns and social distancing, the return to normal this summer was, for the most part, very welcome. But now that the weather is turning autumnal once again, we’re all at extra risk of colds and seasonal flus.

     It isn’t just Covid you need to be wary of. Scientists have warned that non-Covid illnesses have mounted a post-lockdown fightback, and because social restrictions have left people with lower immunity than usual, we’re all at more risk than usual.

     ‘We are expecting to see a rise in non-Covid illnesses going into the colder months because people have been isolating and haven’t been as exposed to viruses,’ explains Dr Anushka Patchava, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Vitality. ‘They’ve been locked away and haven’t developed the usual immunity they would have.’

     Having spent most of our time isolated, we’ve avoided the usual office bugs that can actually boost our immune systems, meaning as we possibly head into work this winter, we’re actually more at risk of contracting a nasty bout of flu.

     If you have children, you’ll have noticed this is already evident in the wave of illnesses sweeping schools and nurseries this term. Parents are facing a rising tide of chest infections and stomach bugs, with ‘lockdown babies’ particularly vulnerable to infection.

     In fact, nurseries are now warning parents about a ‘predicted increase in the number of respiratory illnesses as restrictions ease and people mix more’. And, sadly, cases of children needing hospital treatment are higher than usual for the time of year and further increases are expected in winter.

     To help you prep for the winter months – and crucially, to differentiate those yearly winter bugs from Covid – we spoke to Dr Patchava about how to safeguard your health, and that of your family this autumn. 

    How can we stay healthy this winter?

     As is the case every winter, it’s probably going to be impossible to stay entirely healthy this winter. We all suffer from the odd sniffle, and that’s normal, as Dr Patchava explains: ‘Illnesses are common at this time of year when children go back to school and the weather takes a turn for the worst. So people will experience the usual chest infections, colds, sore throats and low-grade fevers.’

     The issue this year, however, is that we’re all a bit more vulnerable than usual, so even the normal colds and infections might hit us harder. There are two ways to give yourself the best chance of shrugging off any seasonal illness: get vaccinated against both Covid and the winter flu (and your children, where recommended), and practise as many healthy lifestyle habits as possible.

     ‘The Covid vaccine and the flu vaccine are very different, so even if you’ve had the Covid vaccine, you should also get the flu vaccine,’ Dr Patchava explains. It’s important to wait two weeks between vaccines (it doesn’t matter which way around you get them). This will allow your immunity to develop between jabs. Get both back-to-back and you may be hit with two lots of side effects at once, which won’t be pleasant.

     Dr Patchava also urges those that had their doses of the Covid vaccine earlier (those in older age groups, or with compromised immunity) to make sure their booster jab is booked in when they are able to. ‘Although we’ve seen positive signs for long-lasting immunity – the average effect of natural immunity (developed after Covid-19 infection) is seven-to-eight months in the published study. ​​And although immunity from the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines is shown to be greater than 90% at the 6-month post-vaccine milestone, those people who have had the vaccine in the first round of national vaccinations could potentially now get re-infected with Covid,’ she explains.

     As for the second tip, Dr Patchava urges that, as always, your best bet against any infection is to practice healthy lifestyle choices – something we may all have neglected while in lockdown or working from home.

     ‘We’ve all experienced an increased level of sedentary living as a result of lockdowns,’ she says. ‘Fitness facilities weren’t open. People were commuting less, working from home and not getting their usual walk to work, going up and down stairs and so on. And working from home on screens and laptops meant a lot of people have been sitting for longer in the day.’

     In other words, it’s time to get moving. Thirty minutes a day of moderate or intense exercise is recommended (10,000 steps a week is a good target – and you can use a fitness tracker to monitor your progress). Critically, getting out into the fresh air is vital for your body and your mental health.

     Diet is equally as important. ‘We recommend people to continue what they would have done in a non-Covid world as far as possible,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘By that, I mean focusing on diet and nutrition, eating healthy food, getting the right vitamins and minerals, eating your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, and staying hydrated.’

    What can my children do?

     We’ve explained what you need to do, but getting your children to follow the guidelines can be a different challenge altogether. Given that levels of winter bugs are soaring at schools and nurseries, is there any way to protect your little ones?

     ‘Children partly listen and partly don’t,’ sighs Dr Patchava. All you can do is offer them advice and monitor their actions, where possible. ‘The key things are ensuring that they stay hydrated and, as far as possible, making sure they practise social distancing in the playground.’

     Of course, this is easier said than done. It isn’t a case of making them stay inside at break time (that’s counterproductive; playing outside in the fresh air is the safest option). Instead, ask them to keep some distance between their friends while they’re playing. If they cough or sneeze, they should wash their hands or use alcohol gel immediately. And sharing drinks and food with friends is a no-no. Likewise, younger children should be discouraged from putting their hands in their mouths or licking surfaces.

    How can I tell the difference between Covid and the flu?

     So, yourself or a family member has come down with an illness. Naturally, we’re all on slightly higher alert. After two years of Covid, even the most innocuous winter cold can seem like Covid. But, by looking out for key features of Covid, you’ll be able to tell the difference and put your mind at rest, as Dr Patchava explains.

     Covid and flu can share many similar symptoms: a persistent cough, a high temperature in the 38-40oC range, alternating between fever and chills, a general all-over tiredness and body aches. But, as Dr Patchava points out, there are some distinct features of Covid-19 you should be aware of, including loss of taste or smell.

     ‘I think that is the best way to differentiate Covid from a usual flu infection,’ she says. That said, Dr Patchava does advise that it is always better to err on the side of caution, especially in the case of  children where you won’t necessarily be able to identify a loss of taste or smell.

     ‘Adults or children experiencing symptoms should self-isolate then, if possible, undertake a lateral flow test in the home or, preferably a PCR test,” Dr Patchava advises. ‘Until the results are revealed, you should not come into contact with the public.’

     How can I treat either illness?

     If you are unlucky enough to have fallen prey to a winter bug yourself, or if a family member has come down with the flu, you can treat it at home, depending on how severe the symptoms are.

     ‘With the flu, you can control fevers with paracetamol,’  says Dr Patchava. ‘Make sure you stay hydrated, and that you’re eating and drinking well.’

     If you’re vulnerable or elderly and are experiencing symptoms such as loss of taste and smell, contact your GP immediately, as you could be at greater risk of becoming severely ill with Covid or developing pneumonia. You can also call NHS 111 or visit 111.nhs.uk for advice if you are feeling very unwell. ‘If you have signs of a chest infection, you should seek medical help and advice,’ says Dr Patchava. ‘It may be that you have developed a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.’

     Ultimately, we’re all going to need to be a bit more cautious this winter. And that’s only normal. All you can do is keep a close eye on any developing symptoms, and while there’s no reason to panic, don’t assume a cold will get better of its own accord, either. Giving an infection a little bit of attention now can help you avoid a lot of worry later.

    Find out about Covid’s impact on your kids’ mental-health.

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