getting better

Colds, flus and bugs: How to stay healthy and fight infections this Christmas season

The HSE National Clinical Advisor Dr Vida Hamilton tells us how to stay well, and where to go if we do get sick.

shutterstock_715823824 Shutterstock / Rido Shutterstock / Rido / Rido

WE’RE JUST WEEKS from Christmas and in the middle of the winter, meaning people are more prone to falling ill.

Packed closely together on public transport, recirculated air in offices, shops during at peak Christmas madness and the bitterly cold weather, as well as the stress of the lead up to the festive season puts a lot of strain on our immune systems.

So what’s our best chance of staying well, or of recovering if we do get sick? And if we become seriously ill over Christmas, where should we go?

First things first – the common cold and flu: how do we get ourselves better?

Dr Vida Hamilton, HSE National Clinical Advisor of Acute Hospitals, told that the best thing to do to recover from a cold or flu is rest, to keep your fluids up and to help reduce your symptoms if you can.

But do over the counter medicines like Lemsip and painkillers like Panadol help get rid of your cold or flu? No, says Hamilton, they just help relieve the symptoms.

“What you’re doing is you’re helping to reduce symptoms. Over-the-counter medications like paracetamol are about controlling symptoms such as aches and pains, but they don’t affect the underlying illnesses in any way.”

If they help you that’s fine. But if they don’t give you any symptom relief, don’t waste your money.

The same goes for cough medicine: if they don’t relieve your symptoms, don’t waste your money.

Hamilton says that the problem of people taking antibiotics to relieve colds and flus is “a reducing problem” thanks to work of GPs and nurses over the past three years.

“Over the winter, the vast majority of illnesses are to do with viruses, and antibiotics have no effect whatsoever on viruses. They neither reduce the duration of the virus or the symptoms they cause.”

shutterstock_667211476 Shutterstock / baranq Shutterstock / baranq / baranq


The HSE is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine in order not only to keep themselves well, but to ensure that they don’t pass an illness onto those who are more vulnerable, such as elderly people and pregnant women.

“Around 20% of winter admissions are due to chest infections, and prevention is always better than cure,” says Dr Hamilton.

The pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended for people with chronic disease. This vaccine protects vulnerable people from bad pneumonia and meningitis caused by this bug.

Even if you feel you don’t have the time or the money to get vaccinated, here’s a quick fix that’s cheap and effective: regular handwashing.

“Viruses can live for days on surfaces, and our hands then bring the bugs to our faces, which can lead to winter vomiting or ‘flu. Every time you wash your hands you protect yourself,” Hamilton says.

“It’s also really important to have cough or sneeze etiquette, to cough or sneeze into a tissue, to throw it in the bin afterwards and to wash your hands.”

Where to go

shutterstock_493198735 Shutterstock / Aleksandra Suzi Shutterstock / Aleksandra Suzi / Aleksandra Suzi

So where should you go if you feel ill, and when should you seek professional help?
If you’re feeling unwell but are able to self-mobilise, attend a GP (remember the out-of-hours service).

Go to the Emergency Department if there’s a change in organ function: new onset confusion or agitation, breathing so fast that you’re not able to complete a sentence, if you can’t sit up at all without feeling dizzy, or if you haven’t peed in 12 hours and have no desire to pee.

Your local pharmacist is another option if you’re not sure what to do.

“Your pharmacist is also a fantastic resource, if you need something for symptom relief, reassurance or advice, they’re a great resource.”

If you have a chronic illness, review your medication and the management of your chronic disease with your healthcare provider – this could be the specialty outreach nurse or your GP – before the Christmas period.

“It’s very important to know how your diseases are affected by winter. Make sure you have enough of your medications. Be aware of your symptoms so you know what to do if you have an adverse effect, and so you can recognise what you’re coming down with.”

And if you do need to go to the emergency department, they are open and they are working, Hamilton says. 

“EDs are open and you will be seen. The triage nurse sees you quickly, and then you’re ranked in order of severity. If you’ve gone to a GP and got a referral then there’s no charge. But if you’re managed as a seen-treated-and-discharged, you are charged.”

For more information, you can go to:

  • For the flu vaccine: Those aged 65 years and older, people with long term medical conditions, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes, and also those in regular contact with pigs, poultry or water fowl can get the flu vaccine free of charge (people without medical or GP visit cards may be charged an administration fee). 
  • For minor injuries: Broken bones, dislocations, sprains, strains, wounds, scalds and minor burns that are unlikely to need admission to hospital can be treated at these 11 Injury Units.
  • For cold and flu advice: If you have a cold or flu, or think you have, this is a good website for advice on how to get better – it comprises of advice from the Irish College of GPs and the Irish Pharmacy Union.
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