There’s never a ‘good’ time for illness to strike, but becoming unwell at Christmas – while everyone else is wolfing down mince pies and Bailey’s – can feel particularly unfair, whether it’s the flu, a stomach bug, or a more serious medical emergency.
When you’re struck with illness over the festive period, it can be difficult to know what to do. With a number of NHS surgeries closed or running a reduced service, it’s tempting to turn to A&E at the first sign of ill health. But depending on the symptoms and severity of your illness, you may be better off staying at home.
Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director at Bupa Health Clinics, Dr Ravi Tomar, GP at Portland Medical and Dr Sara Kayat, resident GP on ITV’s This Morning, explain how to treat the most common health complaints during the festive season and when to seek medical assistance:
Why do I get ill at Christmas?
There are a few reasons why people tend to become unwell at Christmas. ‘The festive season can come with a number of stresses, such as financial worries and making sure you’re on top of work deadlines before taking a break,’ says Dr Powles. ‘Stress can weaken your immune system, putting you at higher risk of catching a cold or flu,’ or some other virus or bacterial condition – like a stomach bug.
‘Increased alcohol intake and poor nutrition is another factor which can lead to a weakened immune system,’ he continues. ‘While Christmas time is a great excuse to indulge in tasty treats, don’t overdo it. It’s important to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle as much as you can over the festive period.’
Add to that the increased circulation of common cold and flu viruses, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for festive bedrest. ‘As the temperature drops, and the days become shorter we often spend more time indoors than usual, increasing the likelihood of viruses spreading,’ says Dr Powles.
Where to get medical help at Christmas
If you start to experience symptoms associated with COVID-19, self-isolate immediately and book a free swab test via the NHS website. For other ailments unrelated to the coronavirus, consider the following five options for seeking medical attention during the holidays:
⚠️ If someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk, call the emergency services on 999.
1.Head for the chemist
The pharmacist is an important health resource that often gets overlooked, and you don’t need to make an appointment to see one. Many pharmacies remain open during the holidays and can offer private consultations. It’s worth checking local opening hours before the Christmas period so you can plan ahead.
‘Pharmacists are highly-trained health professionals who can advise on health and wellbeing, as well as supply medicines to manage minor ailments with over-the-counter medication, and some pharmacists are even able to prescribe medication,’ says Dr Kayat. ‘More importantly, they will be able to tell you when your illness warrants a doctor’s visit and they will be able to signpost you to your nearest service.’
2. Call NHS 111
NHS 111 is a free 24-hour telephone helpline service that can help if you have an urgent medical problem and you’re not sure what to do. Depending on the situation, they will:
Explain which local service can help you.
Connect you to a nurse, emergency dentist, pharmacist or GP.
Arrange a face-to-face appointment if you need one.
Share an arrival time if you need to go to A&E, so you spend less time waiting.
Explain how to get any medicine you need.
Offer advice to treat or manage symptoms at home.
You could also visit the NHS 111 website and access the online service. It will ask you to enter your main symptoms and advise when and where to get help. If necessary, it will arrange for a nurse to call you.
3. Book a private consultation
If you are able to pay for medical care, you could choose to access a private consultation service online. There are many to choose from, including:
Bupa’s Remote GP service offers remote video and telephone consultations with a private GP or primary care nurse.
GP at Hand can put you on a video call with an NHS doctor 24 hours a day, and you should get seen within two hours. However, it requires you to switch from your current GP to be able to use the service.
Babylon Health offers virtual consultations with doctors and health care professionals via text and video messaging.
Make sure you know the full costs involved before you agree to a consultation. It’s also worth noting that while these GPs can prescribe and refer as normal, they may recommend a face-to-face consultation if you need to be examined.
4. Call your GP surgery
While festive opening hours vary, all GP surgeries will be closed for Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. An out-of-hours on-call GP service will cover the surgery during this time, but it’s important that this is used appropriately. Dr Powles recommends seeking medical advice from a GP or nurse if any of the following applies:
Your symptoms do not improve after three weeks
Your symptoms suddenly become worse
Your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery
You’re concerned about your child’s symptoms
You’re finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain
You have a long-term medical condition, for example, diabetes
You have a weakened immune system
5. Head to A&E
The Accident and Emergency department is often overwhelmed during the festive season, and should only be accessed in the event of a serious or life-threatening illness. If this occurs, call 999 for an ambulance and begin emergency first aid.
How to treat Christmas health complaints
From dodgy tummies to kitchen scalds, we explain how to treat the most common health complaints at home, and reveal when to head to A&E:
1. Food poisoning at Christmas
Food poisoning can be caused by any number of bacteria, but the main culprits are campylobacter, salmonella and e.coli, all of which can be found in undercooked meat or unpasteurised dairy, says Dr Tomar. ‘For many, their Christmas turkey or goose will be the only time all year that they roast a bird of that size – so food poisoning is sadly not uncommon over the holidays,’ she says.
The main symptoms of food poisoning include:
Loss of appetite
A high temperature
Lack of energy
Symptoms usually start a day or so after eating contaminated food, although it can begin within a few hours. The majority of people with food poisoning can safely look after themselves at home and don’t need medical treatment. ‘Drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated, and to eat small, bland meals when you feel up to it,’ says Dr Tomar.
You could also consider purchasing an oral rehydration solution from your local pharmacy, which are available without a prescription. If you’re pregnant, over 60, have a long-term health condition or weak immune system, it’s best to seek medical advice from your GP practice or via NHS 111.
2. Coughs, colds and flu over Christmas
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a run-of-the-mill cold and a case of the flu. ‘The main differences between cold and flu are the rate of symptom onset – which tends to be more abrupt for flu – and the severity of symptoms, such as chills, aches, fever and headaches, which are more likely and more pronounced in flu,’ says Dr Tomar.
This year, there’s also the risk of COVID-19. While COVID-19 and flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses, which means they affect your lungs and breathing, they are caused by different viruses. Symptoms of both COVID-19 and flu can range from mild to severe, and can cause pneumonia. The key to telling the difference between them is by which symptoms are predominant. The main symptoms for COVID-19 are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste. The flu initially feels like a common cold, with symptoms such as a runny nose, nasal congestion and sore throat.
If you suspect you may have COVID-19, self-isolate immediately and arrange for a swab test through the NHS website. If you suspect you may have the flu, you should also try to stay indoors and seek medical help virtually or via a phone call where possible. By visiting your local GP practice or pharmacist in person, you may spread the virus and put vulnerable people at risk, including young children, older adults and those with long-term conditions or compromised immune systems.
3. Chest pain over Christmas
It’s best not to self-diagnose chest pain. There are lots of different causes and your GP can ensure it’s nothing serious. If your practice is closed, call NHS 111, who will be able to assess whether your symptoms need urgent assessment and guide you to a local service.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, always call 999 without delay:
Sudden chest pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck or jaw
Pain that makes your chest feel tight
Pain that comes with shortness of breath, sweating and feeling sick
Pain that lasts more than 15 minutes
Eating rich food over Christmas can lead to heartburn or indigestion, which can cause chest pain that starts after eating. ‘Over-the-counter remedies from your local pharmacist can be helpful for managing symptoms of these conditions, but prevention is really the best cure,’ says Dr Tomar. ‘Try to eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid excessive alcohol consumption if you know you’re prone to heartburn or indigestion.’
4. Minor accident or injury at Christmas
Cuts, burns and scalds can sometimes be an unintended consequence of Christmas dinner preparations.
Cuts and grazes
Often these kinds of injuries can be treated at home. ‘Stopping the bleeding, cleaning the wound and covering it with a plaster or dressing may be all that is needed,’ says Dr Tomar. ‘It’s important to ensure you have a well-stocked first aid kit ready at home.’ However, if any of the following occur, go to A&E:
Bleeding is very heavy and can’t be controlled
Bleeding is spurting – this is a sign you may be bleeding from an artery
You experience loss of sensation near the wound
You have a severe cut to the face
You believe the wound may be infected or have a foreign body inside
The wound is very large
Burns and scalds
To limit the damage of a burn or scald, treat the burn with cool running water as soon as possible after the injury, holding the area under the water constantly for 10 to 15 minutes. ‘Many people stop running water over burns and scalds much too soon, but the timeframe is key to minimise damage and reduce scarring,’ says Dr Tomar.
If the burn is large, deep, causes white or charred skin or blisters, go to A&E immediately. Likewise with chemical or electric burns, or burns to a child or older adult.
When any accident or injury occurs, watch out for the onset of shock. If you notice these symptoms, head for A&E for urgent assessment and care:
Cold, clammy skin
Rapid, shallow breathing
Weakness or dizziness
5. Prescription meds at Christmas
If you have an existing health condition, think ahead when it comes to your medication and ensure you have requested your prescription and picked up your regular medication from the pharmacist in advance. ‘Make sure you have enough supplies to last you until well after the festive period into the New Year,’ says Dr Kayat. ‘GP surgeries have easy systems to allow patients to access repeat medical prescriptions for long term medicines, and in many cases, to have these sent directly to their regular pharmacy.’
If you run out of prescription medicine over Christmas and do not have a valid prescription, remote GP services are able to dispense prescriptions after a consultation, says Dr Powles. ‘Under certain circumstances pharmacies can dispense an emergency supply of prescription-only medication,’ he says. ‘However, you must have been prescribed this medication before and in most cases will need to see a pharmacist face-to face for an assessment before any medication can be dispensed.’
How to stay healthy this Christmas
The best way to tackle festive ill-health is to avoid becoming unwell at Christmas in the first place. While that’s certainly easier said than done, these simple steps will help you take care of your wellbeing without disrupting the merriment:
✔️ Plan ahead
A little festive preparation can go a long way – antihistamines, decongestants, cough medicine, a thermometer, plasters and oral rehydration salts are all fail-safe options. ‘It’s a good idea to keep your medicine cabinets well stocked over the Christmas period to treat minor illnesses that can be managed at home,’ says Dr Powles.
‘Lots of over-the-counter medicines, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are available to relieve symptoms of common winter illnesses from colds to earaches,’ he continues. ‘Your pharmacist will be able to help advise you on what medicines can help you and your family stay well over the festive period.’
✔️ Keep active
Many of us are spending more time at home than ever before, which can make it harder to keep active, says Dr Powles – but making sure you keep your body moving can help take care of both your mental and physical health this winter.
‘You don’t need to do intense exercise to keep active; there are many activities you can do at home to get your body moving,’ he says. ‘You could try walking up and down your stairs, housework, chair yoga or an online fitness class.’
✔️ Be drink aware
Christmas may be a time to eat, drink and be merry, but go easy on the sauce. ‘Consider choosing a tipple with less alcohol content, keep hydrated by sipping water or soft drinks between the booze, or consider cutting back altogether,’ says Dr Kayat.
Booze often plays a role in the burn and cutting injuries suffered while cooking a Christmas feast. If you’re the family chef, wait until after you’ve served the meal.
✔️ Stay warm
Not just outside, but indoors too. ‘The ideal temperature of your home to keep you warm and well is between 18 and 24 degrees celsius, with the higher end of the range recommended for adults over 65, especially in living rooms,’ says Dr Powles.
✔️ Prep properly
Turkey preparation is often responsible for dodgy tummies during the festive period – in fact, there are around 250,000 cases of food poisoning related to poultry every year, says Dr Kayat. ‘To avoid becoming one of these statistics, ensure you defrost your frozen turkey properly, and prepare and cook it appropriately,’ she says.
✔️ Wash your hands
Regular hand-washing is an easy way to protect yourself from viruses. ‘You should wash your hands once you get home, after using the toilet or changing a nappy, before eating or handling food and after sneezing or coughing,’ says Dr Powles. ‘Washing your hands immediately removes bacteria and viruses on your hands. If you do not have access to soap and water, you can use sanitiser or alcohol-based hand rub as an alternative.’
✔️ Eat your veggies
Those Christmas puds and pigs in blankets may taste great, but they don’t do much for your immune system. Don’t neglect the sprouts. ‘Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, exercise regularly and take supplements where appropriate such as vitamin D in the recommended amount,’ says Dr Kayat.
✔️ Check in with others
Don’t forget about the health of your nearest and dearest. ‘Those aged over 65, pregnant or have a long-term health condition are more at risk of becoming unwell,’ says Dr Powles. ‘Making sure they are safe and well, keeping warm – especially at night – and have food and medicines available so they do not need to go out in the cold weather can help.’
Last updated: 18-12-20
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