(First posted in the Irish Life Health Wellness Blog, November 2018)

How to Stay Well This Winter, with Dr. Neil Reddy

As winter draws in and the days start to get chillier, the smallest sniffle can feel like the start of something more serious. But not every bout of illness requires a visit to a doctor, and there are some simple tips you should keep in mind before booking an appointment. We spoke to Dr. Neil Reddy of Precision Healthcare to get his expert advice on how to stay well this winter.

What are the guidelines for deciding whether a chest or throat infection is serious enough to see your GP?

Most chest, throat and sinus infections are caused by viruses, and a healthy person will shake them off in 5-7 days without needing to see their GP. Paracetamol, a decongestant or cough bottle and plenty of rest is all that’s required. You should see your GP if you have:

  • Severe pain (unresponsive to paracetamol or ibuprofen)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent pain or fever beyond 7-10 days

What’s the difference between a viral and bacterial infection?

A viral infection will not be improved by taking an antibiotic. However, telling the difference between the two in the initial stages is difficult, since both cause cough, fever and mucus. Generally, bacterial infections of the throat, ears, sinuses and lungs tend to be more severe, so if your symptoms are tolerable, you should probably wait the 5-7 days before seeing your GP.

What simple treatments should you try before seeing your GP?

For fever, take paracetamol or ibuprofen.
For a cough, take an expectorant like Exputex if you have mucus on your chest that you can’t get up. Take a cough suppressant if you have a dry, tickly cough.
For sore throat, take paracetamol or ibuprofen, as well as throat sprays or lozenges.
For sinus congestion, take eucalyptus formulations like Vicks, decongestants or nasal rinses.

Would you recommend that people get the flu vaccine?

The flu vaccine is recommended for those with underlying medical problems, because they’re at a higher risk of complications from influenza infection, like pneumonia.

These groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Over 55s
  • People with diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease
  • Those with compromised immunity
  • Those who live with or care for the groups above
  • Healthcare workers

What are the benefits of Vitamin D supplements?

Vitamin D is generally made in the skin from exposure to sunlight, and most people with light skin can get sufficient amounts from safe exposure to sun in the Irish summer months. However, this is obviously more difficult in winter. Extra vitamin D should be taken from foods (fish, fortified milk and breakfast cereals) during the dark half of the year. Vitamin D supplements are recommended for dark-skinned and house-bound people, as well as those with greater demands, like young children. Vitamin D levels can be checked by your GP, although the exact recommended blood level is a contentious issue.

What are your top tips for staying healthy during winter months?

Eat a healthy diet with adequate levels of vitamin-containing vegetables, fruits and fish. If possible, avoid frequent transitions from cold to hot by dressing sensibly indoors and outdoors. Reduce the risk of catching viruses by careful hand-washing before eating, and try to reduce touching your eyes, nose and mouth when around family or colleagues who are ill.

Do you have any tips for mitigating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Get as much sun exposure as possible by taking a walk at lunchtime and weekends – mornings and evenings are too dark. This may involve adjusting your work schedule to suit. Some people find a daylight lamp useful. Exercise as often as possible (at least three times per week).

Dr. Neil Reddy is a Licentiate of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. He has extensive experience in the design and delivery of health screening and wellness programmes for small and large clients, including several multinational companies.

Remember to always check with your pharmacist about medication safety before treating yourself at home.