Whilst we’ve had a good run of lovely warm weather well into autumn this year, winter has finally arrived, bringing with it the usual gamut of respiratory viruses ranging from the common cold through to RSV, Influenza and Covid. We thought now was the perfect time to look at how to reduce your risk of catching these germs, reduce the chances you’ll get really sick and how to manage things if we (or the kids) do. We also look at some of the things which don’t work and when you should worry and seek medical help.

Why winter?

Most respiratory viruses love winter for a few reasons, not the least of which is that we all tend to spend more time indoors with the windows and doors shut against the cold, coughing and sneezing and sharing each other’s air in close quarters. Covid is still deciding whether it will become a seasonal virus or not and has so far come in waves that don’t really mirror the seasons. But most other respiratory viruses, like rhinoviruses (the common cold), RSV, Influenza and others definitely follow a seasonal pattern and peak in the colder months. 

What are some tips for reducing the chances of getting sick?

Up to date vaccinations
The number one way to reduce your risk is to be up to date with your vaccinations. Covid boosters and an annual Influenza vaccination top this list. Check HERE to see if you are eligible for a Covid booster.

Annual influenza vaccination is available for everyone aged 6 months and over and is particularly recommended for those at higher risk of severe disease especially children aged 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women and older Australians aged 65 and up. The best time to have it is in autumn or early winter well before the expected peak of infections around July-August.

Support your immune system
There are a lot of myths in the “immune-boosting” space, and we covered a number of them in the very first edition of our newsletter back in the winter of 2021 HERE.

Proven ways to support your immune system are:

  • Eat a healthy and varied diet focussing on plenty of colourful fruit and veg. There is little evidence to support the use of supplements like echinacea or Vitamin C to prevent or treat infections – much better to focus on eating a healthy diet to hit your daily targets. See HERE for tips on healthy eating in winter.
  • Get enough sleep. Poor sleep has been shown to have a direct effect on our immune system. See our article on sleep for some tips on how to improve your sleep quality HERE.
  • Get moving. Daily exercise, a minimum of 30 minutes a day, is also critical to a well-functioning immune system. See our article HERE on the benefits of exercise and how to get more movement into your day.
  • Manage stress well. Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact our immune system. See our tips HERE for some simple but effective stress management techniques.

Don’t forget the basics: respiratory etiquette and hygiene
We all know this by now thanks to Covid, but these simple tips work well for other respiratory viruses as well:

  • Stay home (or keep the kids home) if you have symptoms. This will ensure you rest and recover more quickly but also reduce the chance you will spread your virus to others.
  • Consider wearing a mask in poorly ventilated crowded indoor spaces. Most respiratory viruses are spread not just by droplets on surfaces but by droplets (or even smaller particles) in the air that build up indoors if there isn’t much fresh air getting in.
  • Basic hand hygiene is still important.
  • Test early (and often) – rapid antigen tests (RATs) are still an important tool for reducing the spread of Covid and also important if you are in a risk group that might benefit from early treatment (see below). New 3-in-1 RATs coming onto the market soon can test for Covid, Influenza and RSV. RATs may be negative in the first few days so keep testing (and isolating) while you have symptoms. We can also arrange PCR testing for Influenza and other viruses if indicated.

What to do if you do get sick:

  1. Rest and stay well hydrated. Rest allows your body to focus on fighting off the illness, while staying hydrated helps to keep your mucous membranes moist so it’s easier to clear any congestion.
  2. Drink warm liquids such as tea, chicken soup, and hot water with lemon and honey*. The warmth can help to soothe sore throats and reduce congestion. *No honey for babies under 12 months though (risk of botulism).
  3. Over the counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen can help reduce fever and pain such as headaches or muscle aches. Cough medicines tend not to be effective, so we don’t usually recommend them.
  4. Saline nasal sprays can help by relieving the congestion or dryness in the nose. They thin the mucus and help flush it out. Steam inhalations can have a similar effect (but shouldn’t be used in children due to the risk of burns).
  5. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses, they are only useful against bacterial infections.
  6. Antiviral medicines for Covid and Influenza may be recommended if you are in a risk group for more severe disease. These need to be commenced within the first few days to be effective however, hence the need to get tested early if you are in a risk group.
  7. Seek medical advice early if you (or your unwell loved one) is very young or very old, has persistently high fevers, shortness of breath, worsening symptoms at any time or if there are underlying conditions that might make you more prone to complications.

Generally speaking, most winter coughs and colds, (even Covid infections in most people) are mild, albeit unpleasant illnesses that are what we call self-limiting – they get better on their own and your job is to rest and manage your (or your child’s) symptoms while your immune system gets on with its job. A few simple strategies can help reduce your chances of getting sick this winter, and we are here to help if you do.

Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

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