With a bit of preparation, you can stay healthy this winter and enjoy the season as Michelle Higgs explains
Winter can be a tricky time of year for our NHS with elderly and vulnerable patients needing more care, and GP surgeries becoming busier. But there’s one place you can go for help with seasonal ailments without needing an appointment: your friendly local pharmacy.
Pharmacies are a vital part of the NHS, offering valuable face-to-face advice you can trust. If you have a minor medical issue, remember to go to or call a pharmacy first rather than a GP. In this way, you can do your bit to relieve some of the pressure on the NHS.
In the winter, you may be more at risk of catching a cold or have a sore throat or cough. You might also find an existing skin condition is exacerbated by the weather. And if you’re very unlucky, you could contract influenza (flu). But prevention is better than cure, so it’s worth stocking up on cold remedies and emollients at the pharmacy, and having a flu jab.
Tackle the common cold
Colds are a fact of life, especially in the winter, but their symptoms are no joke. Coughing, sneezing, a blocked nose and a sore throat can all disturb your sleep, and make you feel generally lousy and out of sorts. Most adults and older children can get over a cold within a week, although coughs can last for up to three weeks. Younger children are usually affected for longer and can experience symptoms for 10–14 days. This is because their immune systems are not yet fully developed. If you’re a smoker, the infection could last longer and you may have more severe symptoms, particularly a cough.
✚ It may not feel like it when you have a really bad cold, but it’s actually a mild viral infection. Antibiotics don’t work on these types of infection. Patients may need to visit GP if an infection is present or is progressively getting worse with other conditions – it may exacerbate others.
But help is at hand from your local pharmacy which stocks remedies you need to relieve your symptoms. Similar products can be found at the supermarket, but with so many to choose from, it can be tricky to know which one is right for you. The pharmacy team will ask you about your symptoms and will advise you on the best treatment. If you can’t take capsules or tablets, you’ll be offered alternatives.
It might be suggested that you take an oral analgesic to relieve a sore throat; an expectorant medicine to help treat a stubborn cough; or a decongestant to clear a blocked nose. As an alternative, the pharmacist might advise a combination product, such as a cold remedy in various formulations. These often consist of a decongestant, cough suppressant, analgesic, antihistamines or an expectorant. If you can’t tolerate decongestants, you could try inhalants, vapour rubs or saline products instead.
Get your flu jab
The flu virus starts to circulate in the UK from November and usually continues until March. The symptoms are wide-ranging and can come on very quickly; they can include a very high temperature, a dry cough, headache, an aching body, sore throat, and extreme fatigue. You should recover quickly if you’re otherwise healthy, but it’s best to stay at home for about a week until you’re over the worst symptoms. You should rest, keep warm and stay hydrated. Ibuprofen or paracetamol can help alleviate the fever and aches and pains, or the pharmacy team can offer flu remedies.
If you catch flu and you’re in an at-risk group, you may develop more severe symptoms. You might even suffer complications such as pneumonia, and you may be offered antiviral drugs to treat it. You’re more at risk if you’re over 65; if you’re pregnant; if you’re a child under six months old; or if you have a weakened immune system, or a long-term health condition such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease.
Flu vaccines on the NHS are given to people in at-risk groups at community pharmacies across the UK, so if you’re offered one, it’s vital that you attend for a jab. The groups eligible for free flu jabs vary in each of the four nations, so ask your pharmacist for more details.
Look after your skin
In the winter, the combination of central heating and cold, windy weather can wreak havoc on our skin, quickly drying it out and leaving it itchy or flaky. If you already suffer from skin complaints such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea, you’re likely to find that winter triggers a flare-up of your condition. But all is not lost!
If you adjust your skincare regime as soon as it gets colder, it’s possible to minimise or even prevent flare ups. This is where advance planning comes in and where you can make the most of the expert advice at your community pharmacy. It stocks a wide range of emollients such as creams, lotions, gels and ointments, and can advise which one is best for your skin type and condition. The team can also offer samples or trial sizes of products for you to try. Given the wide range of products on the market, this is a definite plus. Gentle exfoliation is best for sensitive skin, so ask about products made from natural ingredients; it’s also important to avoid anything that contains irritants such as perfume. Remember to pay special attention to your hands and feet, not just your face.
Benefit from expert advice
Don’t forget that the staff at your community pharmacy have expert knowledge about medicines, so they can tell you whether over-the-counter products can be taken alongside any medication prescribed by your GP. For example, water tablets, which are often used to lower blood pressure, can react with decongestants in cold remedies and might cause issues. The pharmacy team can also explain how to boost your immune system through a nutritious diet, regular exercise and taking nutrients such as vitamins C and D, and zinc.