Read East Devon Public Health Project Officer Helen Wharam's helpful tips on how to stay safe and well in winter, including how to avoid common winter illnesses, combat depression and reduce stress

Flu

Flu is very infectious and can be easily spread by germs from coughs and sneezes. These germs can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours. To reduce the risk of spreading flu:

• wash your hands often with warm water and soap • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

Most people recover from flu within a week or two, but it can be much more serious for vulnerable groups, including older people, pregnant women, children and people with an underlying health condition. These people are advised to have a flu vaccination (or flu nasal spray for children) each year, which is the best way to prevent getting it.

The vaccine is free of charge on the NHS for people who are at risk:

  • 65 years of age or over 
  • Pregnant 
  • Have certain medical conditions 
  • Live in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility 
  • Receive a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
  • Children over the age of 6 months with a long-term health condition
  • Children aged 2 and 3 on August 31 2019
  • Children in primary school

If you do catch flu, a pharmacist can give treatment advice and recommend flu remedies. You can often treat flu without seeing your GP and you should begin to feel better in about a week.

Medical warning: If you catch flu and belong to a vulnerable group, or are worried, seek professional medical advice from a pharmacist, call NHS 111 or see your GP.

The NHS website has more information about flu including its symptoms and how to treat it yourself.

Norovirus

Norovirus is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK. It is also called the winter vomiting bug because it's more common in winter.

Symptoms include suddenly feeling sick, projectile vomiting, and watery diarrhoea. Some people also have a slight fever, headaches, painful stomach cramps and aching limbs. The symptoms appear one to two days after you become infected and typically last for up to two or three days.

Norovirus can be very unpleasant but it usually clears up by itself in a few days. You can normally look after yourself or your child at home.

Norovirus spreads easily. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is the best way to stop it spreading. Alcohol hand gels do not kill norovirus.

Please stay off school or work until the symptoms have stopped for two days and avoid visiting anyone in hospital during this time.

If norovirus is introduced into care homes and hospitals, it can lead to ward closures and makes it difficult for healthcare staff to treat vulnerable patients at the busiest time of the year. The ward will be closed until the outbreak is over, which can take weeks.

The NHS website offers advice on Norovirus.

Medical warning: If you are worried about specific health issues, please seek professional medical advice.

Season’s eatings!

For many people, it wouldn’t be Christmas without turkey, but cooking for a special occasion can be a lot of pressure, from planning the defrosting and cooking times, to storing food safely.

Raw and undercooked turkey can cause food poisoning and have serious consequences especially for children, people already in ill-health and older people. Any bout of food poisoning is unpleasant, and it is particularly miserable to be ill over Christmas. The best way to avoid getting food poisoning is to maintain high standards of personal and food hygiene when storing, handling and preparing food.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends remembering the Four Cs:

  • Cleaning
  • Cooking
  • Chilling
  • Cross-contamination (avoiding it)

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) website gives advice on safely storing, defrosting, preparing, cooking and using left-overs from your turkey.

East Devon District Council’s page on food hygiene and safety gives guidance to food businesses on how to comply with the law, plus advice for consumers about food issues.

Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating contaminated food. In most cases the food is contaminated by bacteria such as Salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), or a virus such as norovirus. It's not usually serious and most people get better within a few days without treatment, but it can be more serious in pregnant women, babies and young children, older people, and people with a long-term condition or a weak immune system.

The NHS website gives information about food poisoning including symptoms and what to do. Disclaimer: If you are worried about specific health issues, please seek professional medical advice.

Winter blues

Some people find they feel depressed in winter, or suffer from 'winter blues'.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as winter depression, because the symptoms are usually more severe during the winter.

The exact cause of SAD isn't fully understood, but it's often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days.

If the short, dark days are getting you down, the NHS has information on SAD.

For some people, the symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on day-to-day activities. A range of treatments are available and your GP will recommend the most suitable treatment programme for you.

Disclaimer: If you are worried about specific health issues, please seek professional medical advice.

Stress-less Christmas!

Here are some ideas for people who find Christmas is a difficult time.

People expect Christmas to be fun, with parties, celebrations, and social gatherings. But lots of people find Christmas extremely stressful. This is often to do with expectations, such as finding the right gifts, preparing the perfect meal, getting the house ready, spending concentrated time with family and the costs.

To help you have a fun Christmas and keep the pressure off, here are Relate's suggestions:

  • Discuss expectations: talk in advance with family and friends about everyone’s expectations, including the cost.  You could agree spending limits or give presents that don't need to be bought e.g. washing the car.
  • It’s OK to say no: be honest about what you want. Explain why and suggest an alternative e.g. instead of doing all the cooking suggest a ‘bring and share’ meal.
  • Practical prep: if you’re hosting Christmas, prepare beforehand e.g. make (or buy) food early and wrap presents. Ask family and friends each to take on a task.
  • Delegate: we all want to be the perfect host, but asking guests to help makes everyone feel involved.
  • Avoid conflict if your guests might not get on. A walk gives everyone the chance to chat to someone different (or to stay at home) if tension is building. Break up potential conflict by asking a guest to make drinks or help out with the children.
  • It’s your Christmas too: Christmas Day can become a blur because you’re busy trying to make it perfect for everyone else. Make sure you have some time to enjoy it.

Tackling loneliness

Winter can be a particularly lonely time for some people. There are lots of ways to help lonely or socially isolated elderly people in your community. A simple friendly chat or phone call could make all the difference. Giving some of your time could be as valuable to you as the person you support, as it's likely to boost your self-esteem and sense of purpose.

The Campaign To End Loneliness suggests 12 imaginative ways to tackle loneliness and make everyone feel more connected at Christmas. These range from giving a neighbour a card, to sharing a mince-pie moment, to recommending comedian Sarah Millican's #joinin chat on Twitter for people who want company on Christmas Day.

The NHS website also offers ideas on how to help, including:

  • Start a conversation
  • Offer practical help
  • Share your time
  • Help with household tasks
  • Share a meal
  • Watch for signs of winter illness.

Samaritans volunteers will be on hand over the festive season to listen to anyone having a tough time. More than 11,000 volunteers across the UK and Ireland will be working shifts for the charity to ensure its free helpline is open night and day round the clock, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. Mental health, family issues, isolation and loneliness are expected to be the top concerns. Call 116 123 for free.

Staying warm

Are you worried about cold or icy conditions? Stay one step ahead of the weather with the Met Office weather app. This will help you plan your day, wherever you are, with the latest daily weather forecasts and UK National Severe Weather Warnings.

Find out how to keep yourself well and your home warm during winter. The NHS website gives advice on how to stay well in winter including how to keep your home warm by outlining:

  • Why is cold weather a problem?
  • Who is most at risk?
  • Be prepared
  • How to keep your home warm
  • Protect your health in the cold
  • Look in on vulnerable neighbours and relatives

East Devon District Council’s page on coping with cold weather gives some handy tips on how to look after yourself, your family and your home during cold weather.

East Devon District Council’s page on energy efficiency grants for individuals lists grants available from a range of sources.