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The 12 pains of Christmas: common winter illnesses treated

Debra Waters

Christmas – a time of merriment, gifts and… illness. Unfortunately, a combination of winter complaints, stress and overindulging means that many of us will feel poorly over the festive season. 

In fact, data gathered between 2000-2010 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), and reported in the NHS ‘Keep safe this Christmas’ report, shows that it’s not only ill health that we have to contend with – between 21 December-19 January the UK death rate significantly increases, reaching a peak on New Year’s Day. Aside from succumbing to the cold and winter illnesses we are more likely to suffer from falls, choking, burns, traffic incidents, and domestic violence.

Potential accidents aside, it's important to keep well during the holiday period. Here are 12 of the most common ailments people fall prey to at this time of year, and what you can do to fend them off.

© Getty Colds and flu 

Colds and flu are the bane of winter months. It’s thought that the immune system is compromised by cold weather so wrapping up warm is essential. If you’re asthmatic, you need to take extra care.

Professor Paul Cosford, Director of Health Protection at Public Health England (PHE), endorses “keeping yourself warm [as this] is essential to staying healthy, especially for the very young, older people or those with a chronic illness.”

Conversely, central heating can lower our defences by drying out the nasal mucous that prevents viruses from entering the body, so resist turning up the thermostat beyond 22C (18-21C is ideal).

Eating fresh produce and taking Echinacea, zinc and vitamin C supplements may help fight off cold viruses, while keeping hydrated will boost that all-important nasal mucous. However, the best way to evade a cold is to wash hands regularly to get rid of germs and avoid close contact with people who are ill.

Use the same tactics to minimise the chances of catching flu as you would a cold. However, as flu is more serious (symptoms include a high fever, sore throat and aches as well as a cough and runny nose) flu jabs are free on the NHS for vulnerable people, or you can pay for one. Although the vaccine doesn’t offer protection from all strains, it’s still an effective form of protection

© AP Back pain 

Back trouble is one of the leading causes of pain in British adults and Christmas is a prime time for injury. Heavy shopping, decorating the home and tree, playing with the kids, drinking more alcohol than usual, eating rich and sugary foods, getting stressed, and even lifting the turkey out of the oven can damage your back.

Here are some tips to prevent your back getting out of whack over the festive season: get help moving heavy items; bend your knees and keep your back straight when lifting; use a stepladder to decorate so you’re not stretching at funny angles; take a trolley or an extra pair of hands shopping; and sit down whilst preparing food.

Limiting your intake of inflammatory fare such as booze and sugar, doing some morning stretches, and taking a daily walk will also work wonders.

© Sapp via Creative Commons Chilblains 

The NHS website states that chilblains are small swellings on the extremities (fingers, feet, ears, nose) that occur after exposure to cold. The burning, itchy sensation they cause intensifies in warm temperatures; this can be relieved by applying calamine lotion. Sometimes the swellings turn into sores that become infected; if this happens, or you develop a fever or swollen glands, see a doctor.

People who smoke, or who have certain pre-existing medical conditions or poor circulation, are prone to chilblains. To avoid this pesky and sometimes painful condition wrap up well – wear thermal socks and underwear, gloves and a hat and warm your shoes on the radiator before going outside. The NHS also recommends finding ways to improve your circulation, and to stop smoking. When coming in from the cold, warm up gradually – heating the skin rapidly can trigger an attack.

© PA Christmas Tree Syndrome (CTS)

If you find yourself developing symptoms similar to hay fever in the lead-up to Christmas – watery eyes, an itchy or blocked nose, coughing and shortness of breath – it may be the tree you’ve bought. Christmas Tree Syndrome is a condition that was coined in 2011, when American specialist Dr Lawrence Kurlandsky published a report after noticing an increase in allergic respiratory illnesses during the festive season. 

When interviewed by The Mirror in 2013, TV medic Dr Chris Steele explained: “We used to think it was the tree sap that caused problems, but research has revealed that it’s mainly caused by mould growing in the tree [which] sends tiny spores into the air. If someone is allergic to them, they’ll get symptoms.”

The best way to treat the syndrome? Hose the tree down with water outside then allow it to dry, and keep the room it’s in cool and well-ventilated; avoid touching or decorating it; and take antihistamines to relieve symptoms. If all else fails, opt for a fake tree.

© Rex Cold sores

Cold sores tend to occur when we’re run down or stressed, though weather changes and certain foods may also trigger them. Caused by the Herpes Simplex virus, they are uncomfortable and unsightly blisters that appear around the mouth. Cold sores can be treated with over-the-counter anti-viral creams but usually go away on their own.

As they’re very infectious, avoid close contact with others, especially babies and people with weak immune systems, and don’t share cups, cutlery and towels until the blisters have healed. The best way to prevent cold stores is to not get stressed (easier said than done). Alternatively, some people swear by lysine supplements or by avoiding foods containing arginine – chocolate, nuts, wholegrains – or acidic foods; both of which nurture the herpes virus.

© Rex Dry skin

Winter can be miserable for those with dry skin conditions. A combination of cold, dry weather, a lack of sunlight, and the dehydrating nature of central heating can play havoc with skin. To treat it, regularly apply moisturiser to seal in the skin’s own moisture – the best time is after a warm (not hot) bath or shower, and before bed. Other ways to reduce skin discomfort is to invest in a humidifier, and wear a cotton layer underneath wool clothing or wear fleeces, which are softer fabrics.

If you suffer from chapped lips skincare experts Paula’s Choice recommend not using long-wearing lipsticks or limp plumpers in winter as they can irritate; investing in a high SPF sunblock; and replacing your current lip balm for a natural, perfume- and fragrance-free one. It's also worth getting checked for vitamin deficiencies, which can cause the mouth corners to crack. Most importantly, resist the temptation to lick your lips – instead, regularly apply a barrier ointment such as Vaseline.

© Getty Hangovers

According to ONS figures for 2010-2011 (reported in the NHS ‘Keep safe this Christmas’ report), Brits drink 41% more in December than the annual monthly average. As much as we’d like to believe there are cures for the inevitable hangover that follows a heavy night, the best way to avoid being hungover is to avoid alcohol.

There are ways to make drinking a safer and more pleasurable experience, however. Firstly, the NHS recommends not drinking on an empty stomach – eat a carb-rich or fatty meal beforehand, then match each drink you have with a glass of water. Drink a pint of water before you sleep, too – this is because most of a hangover’s symptoms are the result of dehydration. If the damage has been done and you wake up with a sore head and a sickly stomach, paracetamol and sugary or isotonic drinks can help, as can light soups or plain rice – much as you’d prefer a greasy bacon butty, it will only make you feel worse.

Your liver will need time to recover which is why doctors recommend at least a night off (preferably two) between drinking sessions.

© Getty Heart attacks

The risk of a heart attack increases in winter; this could be because in cold weather the heart has to work harder to maintain body heat. This can elevate blood pressure, putting the heart under strain, so it's important to keep warm. Professor Cosford at PHE explains: “There are a range of health problems associated with cold housing and winter weather, but in particular a cold indoor or outdoor environment can make heart and respiratory problems worse, and can be fatal.”

Your main living space should ideally be heated to 21C (70F) but if the cost of heating is an issue use hot water bottles and electric blankets, and keep the extremities warm by wearing a hat, scarf and gloves when venturing outside.

© Chris Furlong/Getty Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you generally feel upbeat in the warmer months but your mood drops as autumn sets in you’re not alone. The charity SADA estimated that around 4 million people in the UK experience symptoms indicative of Seasonal Affective Disorder: namely sadness with no cause, extreme tiredness and irritability. It’s thought that low levels of sunlight trigger the condition – singer and actress Natalie Imbruglia suffered from SAD when she first moved from subtropical Australia to London.

A GP should be the first port of call, then try the following: invest in or rent a light box – sitting in front of one for 30 minutes a day stimulates the happy hormone serotonin and limits melatonin production, which causes sleepiness; take a daily walk, preferably when it’s sunny; go to bed at the same time each night to regulate your sleep pattern; avoid screen time on computers or smartphones for at least an hour before bed; and eat lots of green leafy veg and omega-3-rich oily fish. Anti-depressants are another option.

© Rex Sickness bugs (norovirus) 

Whether it’s the norovirus “winter vomiting bug” (pictured) making our days a misery, or the fatty foods and lashings of booze giving us indigestion, bloating and wind there’s no doubt about it – our stomachs take a battering around the Christmas period. Projectile vomiting and diarrhoea is no-one’s idea of festive fun, though fortunately the norovirus clears up after a couple of days (if it doesn’t call the doctor).

The NHS Stay Well This Winter campaign recommends rest and drinking lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Oral rehydration sachets (available from pharmacies) can be very useful and plain food such as white rice will keep your strength up if you can manage it. Avoiding the bug is tricky; frequent hand washing and not sharing clothing, bedding or towels with an infected person will strengthen your chances of not succumbing. Be aware that young children and the elderly or infirm are most at risk of complications from the norovirus.

© Getty Stomach ache and indigestion

Festive indigestion and tummy aches tend to be self-inflicted. Higher-than-usual amounts of sugar, fat and alcohol take a toll on our digestive systems. Peppermint tea, activated charcoal and probiotics can all help; find out more about avoiding the festive bloat here.

© Getty Stress 

The festive season can be a period of intense stress – according to The British Association of Anger Management (BAAM) more than half of British families have disagreements over Christmas, while calls to Relate more than double immediately after the holidays as arguments and money worries cause relationships to implode.

Some ways to minimise stress include taking a vitamin B complex over the winter months which may improve mood and have a calming effect. Delegating tasks and being organised in advance can prevent that dreaded feeling of being overwhelmed. Not getting too drunk, which is a common cause of arguments, is recommended. Try to think positively, too; you’re with loved ones, focus on making happy memories. Lastly, let go of the idea of a perfect Christmas, or that you have to please everyone – it’s your holiday too!

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