We all know that as the temperature plummets at the start of winter, the number of coughs and colds is going to rise. Of course, there’s no cure for the common cold, but if I had a pound for every time a patient had asked me if there was, I’d be a very rich woman!
However, there are some useful tips which could help protect you in winter not just from coughs and sneezes, but also from other common winter woes.
Coughs and Colds
The average adult gets 2-4 colds a year – the average child gets 6-8. Unless you develop complications like pneumonia, they’re unlikely to make you seriously unwell, but they can make life pretty miserable. The vast majority of coughs and colds are caused by viruses, making antibiotics useless against them.
However, there are some effective ways of cutting your chance of getting a cold. There are also things you can do to relieve your symptoms while you wait for your immune system to kick into action once you have one.
- Get moving. People who exercise regularly, are less likely to get coughs and colds than those who don’t.
- Wash your hands. The viruses that cause coughs and colds are mostly spread either by droplets when people cough, or from picking up viruses where they’ve landed on hard surfaces. Get into the habit of washing your hands regularly – not just before you eat.
- Consider a probiotic. Probiotic supplements contain large quantities of ‘good’ bacteria. The bacteria in your gut – called your microbiome – has a significant impact on your immune system. There’s evidence that taking a probiotic may reduce the risk of viral upper respiratory tract infection.
- Boost your vitamin D. In the UK, it’s recommended that everyone takes a 10 microgram daily supplement of vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’. It’s almost impossible to get enough from your diet, and sunlight isn’t strong enough in winter for your body to make it. Regular supplements may help prevent colds, especially if you’re low in vitamin D – but there’s little or no evidence vitamin C has the same effect.
- Sweet stuff. Honey probably helps relieve that tickly cough – but should only be used by adults and children over 1 year old. There’s little evidence that garlic or echinacea help.
- Vaccines. The flu and COVID-19 vaccines won’t protect you against the common cold. However, they’re highly effective at protecting against serious illness from influenza and COVID-19 respectively. So if you’re offered a vaccination on the NHS, do take up the invitation.
Seasonal Affective Disorder and Winter Blues
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression which affects you at the same time every year. It tends to start in September, reach a peak in November-February and lift as spring comes. Symptoms are similar to other types of depression – low mood, lack of motivation or pleasure, loss of interest in things you’d normally enjoy, change in sleep and appetite and irritability.
Other forms of depression can lead to loss of appetite and problems getting to sleep or staying asleep in the morning. By contrast, with SAD you’re likely to feel more hungry (especially craving carbs) and sleep more than usual but still feel tired.
Winter blues is a milder form of the condition, which may affect as many as 2 million people in the UK. Between 2 and 5 people in 100 have SAD. Both conditions are thought to be related to the amount of sunlight you’re exposed to. If you don’t get enough, this can affect the chemicals and hormones in your brain. That’s why light can be so effective for SAD.
- Get out. Being outside in natural daylight, especially in the middle of the day, may be enough to relieve mild symptoms. Sit near a window if you’re indoors during the day.
- Step it up. If you take a brisk walk when you’re outside in the middle of every day, you can double the benefits for your mood.
- Slow carbs. Even if you’re craving high-carb food like potatoes and pasta, you can keep your energy and sugar levels more stable with complex carbs – wholemeal or whole grain rather than white bread/pasta/flour, and fruit and vegetables.
- Stay connected. It can be tempting to tuck up inside when it’s cold and dark. But regular social contact can improve your mood.
- See the light. If your mood is more severely affected, light therapy can make a real difference. It involves using a light box which is at least 2500 lux - 10 times stronger than a normal light bulb. You simply sit 2-3 feet from the box – there will be instructions on the box about how long you use it for. You can carry on with your everyday activities - reading, watching TV or eating – while you use it.
- Seek help. If you think you may have SAD and your symptoms are severe or not responding to light, speak to your doctor.
Your skin is the biggest organ in your body and it does a great job keeping bad stuff out. But dry, cracked skin is less effective at keeping germs from penetrating our bodies. Skin doesn’t like weather that’s too cold, wet, very dry or windy – all of which come together in winter.
Central heating dries out the environment, robbing your skin of moisture. Cold air makes your surface blood vessels close down, reducing circulation to your skin. And wind can lead to chapping and irritation.
But dry, itchy, irritated skin isn’t inevitable in winter. You just need to remember that under all those layers is an important part of your body that needs a little extra TLC at this time of year!
- Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Emollients (the medical term for any moisturising treatment applied to your skin) both replace lost moisture and act as a barrier, stopping you from losing more. But they don’t last long – reapply at least 2-3 times a day and every time you wash your hands.
- Don’t be irritating. If you have sensitive skin, scented products, including soap, can cause inflammation. Use a soap substitute like aqueous cream (from your pharmacist) instead.
- Water dries. It may seem odd, but too much water can suck moisture from your skin, leaving it dry and prone to cracking. Quick showers are better than long baths. Pat rather than rub your skin dry and apply a moisturiser to damp skin as soon as you’ve finished.
- Cool it. Hot water can strip natural oils out of your skin faster than warm. Keep the shower temperature down to lukewarm.
- Use a humidifier. Central heating dries out the air, so a humidifier may help reduce moisture loss from your skin.
- Love your lips. The skin on your lips is particularly thin, making it prone to drying and chapping. Use a regular lip balm (don’t share it with anyone else to avoid infection). If you’re going outside on a cold day, wear a cotton scarf over your mouth.
- Keep it natural. Wool can irritate sensitive skin – and synthetic materials don’t let sweat evaporate and can cause irritation. Stick to natural cotton or linen next to your skin.