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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

9 easy things you can do to help fend off bugs this winter

Feeling like there’s no escaping illness right now? We asked a GP for some practical advice.

AT THIS TIME of the year, a few innocent sneezes can quickly turn into sore ears and a tickly cough and before you know it, your energy levels are zapped.

Stuffy offices, chilly playgrounds and packed buses suddenly become danger zones for picking up (or passing on) bugs and colds, and everyone seems to feel under the weather.

Well, there is some good news. According to Dr Nuala O’Connor, GP Lead Advisor for Antibiotic Resistance at the Irish College of General Practitioners, most of us are born with very capable immune systems that are primed to keep us healthy.

Protecting yourself is just a matter of reducing your exposure to germs that can make you sick, and giving your body the best chance to fight them.

Here are some of Dr O’Connor’s best tips for keeping yourself healthy and free from infection this winter…

1. Contain your coughing (and wash your hands more)

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The most common types of infections that spread at this time of year are upper respiratory infections  – so runny noses, coughs and ear infections.

Dr O’Connor says it’s important to know how to protect yourself, and how to avoid spreading your own infections to other people too:

When coughing you can spread germs up to three feet away from you. Cough into your elbow or into a tissue, giving the germs far less of a chance to spread. Don’t forget to bin tissues right after you use them, and to wash your hands after coughing and before eating.

2. Avoid touching your face

It’s not exactly pleasant to think about the many people who have touched a door handle before you, but staying mindful is important.

“If you think of the typical office, there are potential breeding spots for bugs everywhere,” says Dr O’Connor.

The door handle, and then the phones and the keyboards too. If you touch something with your hands and then touch your hands to your face – or eat without washing your hands first -  that’s how bugs and germs get into your mouth.

3. Don’t stay in work when you feel unwell

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Staying out of the action when you’re sick is key for two reasons, says Dr O’Connor.

Firstly, if your work requires you to be around people who may be vulnerable to infection, like pregnant women or elderly people, avoid exposing them to your illness. “Stay away from work for a day or two,” advises Dr O’Connor.

And in general, the best thing you can do to fight an infection is to take some time out, cut down on work, sporting activities and socialising and drink plenty of fluids.

4. If someone in the house is sick, give them their own towel

Washing your hands will prove useless if you dry your hands on a germ-covered towel directly after. 

“Whoever is sick should have their own towel,” says Dr O’Connor. With kids who are harbouring a cough, cold or flu, you may need to monitor which towel they use, and give them regular reminders to wash their hands.

5. Only use antibiotics if absolutely necessary


“The more we use antibiotics, the more that bacteria learn to become resistant,” warns Dr O’Connor.

As doctors we see more and more superbugs around now like CPE. Those are bugs that have become resistant to standard antibiotics.

While we can’t stop that process of resistance – bacteria have been around for millions of years, so they know what they’re doing – we can slow it down by being more selective. “Only use antibiotics when you really need them,” advises Dr O’Connor.

6. … And make sure you’re taking the right antibiotics for you

“Firstly, antibiotics should only be used for bacterial infections, not viruses,” says Dr O’Connor. “Secondly, your antibiotics should be targeted to your specific illness.”

Broad spectrum antibiotics are those that fight a large segment of the bacteria in our body. While these kinds of powerful antibiotics are effective in cases of extreme illness, for a standard infection they’re simply not needed.

Dr O’Connor compares the broad spectrum approach to “using bleach to clean when washing up liquid would do the job.” Instead, aim for narrow-spectrum antibiotics, which treat a limited group of bacteria.

7. Don’t be a martyr – rest up if you’re feeling sick

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When you’re feeling like you could be coming down with something, Dr O’Connor advises getting in as much sleep as possible.

If you have a viral infection and continue to push yourself, you’re much more likely to become sicker or develop a bacterial infection. Even when you’re feeling fine, getting a good night’s sleep is important.

She suggests avoiding caffeine after 1pm and to have a proper wind down routine at night, to ensure you get as much sleep as you can.

8. Use exercise to make your body stronger

“The more physically fit you are, the less likely you are to become unwell,” says Dr O’Connor. Of course, eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated are also key, but regular exercise is a great place to start.

Try to combine three things within your exercise routine: something to get your heart rate up like aerobics or spinning; some kind of weight or resistance training; and something to improve your flexibility and agility like Pilates.

9. Throw out your cigarettes

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Smoking has all manner of harmful health affects, from an increased cancer risk to reduced fertility. But it can also reduce your ability to fight bacterial infections.

“Your lungs contain inbuilt defence mechanisms in the form of tiny fronds [called cilia] that trap bacteria on their way down,” explains Dr O’Connor.

Smoking damages these fronds. Additionally, smokers produce a lot more mucus than non-smokers, and this provides the perfect home for bacteria to overgrow.

“At this time of year, every chance you can give your body to defend itself from infection will help.”

HSE Ireland / YouTube

Feeling under the weather? Check out for practical advice on how to mind yourself or your family when you’re sick, including advice from doctors around the country. A collaborative effort from the HSE, GPs and pharmacists.

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