Every winter we hear about outbreaks of flu, winter vomiting bugs and patients spending time on trolleys due to hospital overcrowding. Here is some advice to avoid getting caught up in it.
Viral infections are more common at different times of the year. Respiratory tract infections and norovirus gastroenteritis (the winter vomiting bug) are most common in winter.
People who are fit and healthy can usually weather these infections with:
- bed rest
- plenty of fluids
- over-the-counter symptom relief
But these infections are very contagious. If you are infected you need to be very careful of managing your surroundings and who you come in contact with.
The infections are contagious even before they become symptomatic. It can be very difficult to prevent spread to those who are not so healthy and fit. Prevention is better than cure, even if you are in good health.
Even fit and healthy people have different abilities to fight off infection due to their different genetics. You don’t necessarily know how good your infection fighting genes are until you get a really bad infection.
There is no effective vaccine for the winter vomiting bug so good infection control practice is important.
Read more about infection control practice.
Get the vaccine not the flu
Vaccination is the most effective way of preventing infection.
Vaccination works by stimulating your immune system to produce antibodies against the disease. The flu vaccine is not live so you can’t catch the flu from it. The most common complaint is discomfort at the site of injection.
There is also a vaccine recommended for people with chronic disease called the pneumococcal vaccine. This vaccine protects vulnerable people from bad pneumonia and meningitis caused by this bug.
The current flu vaccine is a good match for the circulating flu viruses.
Read more about the flu and the flu vaccine.
People who are vulnerable to bad infections in winter
If you are over 65 years of age you are vulnerable to bad infections in winter.
You are also vulnerable if you have one of the following chronic diseases:
- Chronic lung problems (COPD, Asthma)
- Chronic heart disease
- Chronic kidney or liver disease
- Living with cancer
- Conditions or treatment that weakens the immune system
- Frailty (poor nutritional and mobility status)
If you or your loved one fall into any of the above categories, get yourself winter ready:
- Get vaccinated
- Review your medication and the management of your chronic disease with your healthcare provider this could be the specialty outreach nurse or your G.P.
- Avoid people with obvious symptoms of infection
- Wash your hands frequently – many of the bugs that cause infection can live for many days on table tops and other surfaces.
If you become unwell check out the range of services that are available from
- Advice (website, call lines)
- Out of hours
- Emergency department
If you have a minor injury, check if there is an injury unit near you as the waiting time is a lot shorter than the Emergency Department. But remember they only look after minor injuries, not illness.
What to do if you get ill
Being sick falls into two broad categories:
- the walking unwell
- those who are struggling to function
The walking unwell
The walking unwell typically:
- feel very tired
- have loss of appetite
- aches and pains
- feel rotten
These may or may not be with a temperature or chills. Keep drinking fluids, pee regularly and take over the counter medicines. If the illness is not getting much worse you should be OK with home care.
If you live alone make sure someone knows you are feeling poorly so they can check that you are not getting worse and maybe even pick up some supplies for you.
If you are in one of the at-risk groups listed above or you are worried, talk to your pharmacist or GP. It is likely you have a viral illness and antibiotics will not help. You will need fluids, rest and time to recover.
However, if a specific part of your body appears to be affected and is not working properly because of infection you need a medical review.
Struggling to function
There are certain clues within the human body that may indicate the organs are struggling to function.
If an infection has caused a person to become confused, agitated or difficult to rouse, they need urgent medical care and a check for a serious rash using the glass test and tell the health care professional if it is positive.
Rapid breathing and an inability to finish a sentence without needing to grab another breath or their lips could be blue-tinged.
Hands are clammy, white and cold and dizziness that may only be relieved by lying down again.
No urination in over 12 hours and no urge to pee.
Severe pain, vomiting or diarrhoea associated with feeling very unwell, especially if it is associated with any of the other symptoms listed with the other parts of the body.
Sore, red and swollen areas of skin that may or may not have pus discharging (associated with feeling very unwell).
When young adults are very unwell with infection they often complain of severe leg pain or that they cannot stand up properly. This can be a warning sign of something serious and should be checked out.
Signs that a young baby is not functioning properly are:
- poor feeding
- a weak cry
These are serious signs that should be checked out, even if there is no temperature. An earlier sign might be not needing to change the nappy as it is dry because baby isn’t taking in enough liquid.
When to go to the emergency department
You may not be functioning properly and feel too sick to go to the GP or GP out of hours service. If you do, you need to go to the emergency department. You will be seen even when they are full or very busy.
After check-in at reception you will be seen by a ‘triage’ nurse. They will assess the urgency of your signs and symptoms. If you are not sure, ask the triage nurse if you should go to the GP if the ED is busy.
In the ED, depending on the seriousness of your signs and symptoms, you will be seen as fast as possible. The nurses and doctors will ask you about your symptoms, examine you and they may suggest tests and investigations.
It is not always possible to know the exact cause of an illness. General treatments are given to cover the likely causes while the results of the tests are awaited.
A decision will be made as to whether you can continue your treatment at home or if you need to stay in the hospital.