Protect your respiratory health this winter
On average, you can expect to catch two or three colds every year, characterised by a blocked nose, sore throat, headaches and other ‘flu-like’ symptoms. And winter is the time when we tend to see a significant number of GP consultations, and an increase in people taking time off work due to seasonal illnesses like colds, sinusitis and influenza. Some are easy to shrug off, while others are painful and debilitating, but there are ways to protect yourself.
What problems are we talking about?
The upper respiratory system – which includes the nose, the sinuses, the mouth and the throat – is directly exposed to the environment, and so susceptible to infectious agents like viruses and bacteria. While many people refer to coughs and colds as ‘flu’, be aware that ‘flu-like’ is not the same as influenza, which is a more severe viral infection and presents with high fever, sore throat, nasal discharge, chills, headaches, muscle aches and reduced appetite. Pneumonia, which can be caused by viruses or bacteria, is an infection which causes a cough, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite and fever.
Why do respiratory health issues seem more prolific in winter?
Viruses are carried in respiratory aerosols or droplets and current thinking is that we see an increase in these infections in the winter because of a drop in humidity. We also spend more time indoors crowded together, increasing the opportunity for transmission. The viruses that cause the common cold and influenza are very infectious – they get into your nose and throat, multiply, then spread by sneezes and coughs. These viruses mutate rapidly, so we can’t build up much immunity. That is why there is often a new strain of influenza virus in different seasons requiring a new batch of vaccines. Lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, a group of issues including bronchitis and emphysema often caused by smoking), can be made worse by these infections and by extremes in temperature.
Who is most at risk?
Those with asthma and COPD, which cause narrowing of the airways, are more likely to be hospitalised due to winter respiratory health problems. People with other chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and conditions that result in low immunity (for example, those receiving chemotherapy) are also at increased risk and may be offered immunisation against influenza and pneumonia. Infants and the elderly are also vulnerable because of their relatively low immunity. If you are in good health, viral infections pose more of an irritation than a problem.
What are the treatments?
Viral infections are usually self-limiting, which means that the person will recover within a week or so without any treatment. So, unless you are very unwell or have coronavirus symptoms, it may be better to visit your pharmacist for over-the counter medication for symptomatic relief (such as analgesia for headaches and nasal decongestants for a blocked nose). You should make sure you are well-hydrated and rested, and you are advised not to go to work if you have influenza as there is a risk of transmitting it. If you develop any worrying symptoms – chest pain, coughing up coloured or blood-tinged secretions – then you should seek medical attention. Some people with influenza can get a secondary bacterial infection that will require treatment with antibiotics. Similarly, anyone who develops bacterial pneumonia will require antibiotics, so if you are coughing up a lot of coloured phlegm, then you should go to see your GP.
Can I boost my lung health to prevent respiratory health problems?
Lung function is affected by things like your gender and height – taller people have a larger lung capacity than shorter people. That said, breathlessness can be caused by lung diseases, but can also occur due to heart problems and being unfit, so a good diet and exercise are important. There is some evidence that vitamin D supplements can reduce the risk of respiratory infections in those who have a low level of vitamin D. If you are concerned, or you are prone to an unusual number of chest infections, then you should discuss this with your doctor.
What else do I need to know?
The important thing is to keep lungs healthy in the first place. Smoking is an obvious problem, and there is increasing evidence that exposure to significant air pollution damages lungs and reduces function, particularly in children. In winter, avoid crowded places, use a tissue if you have an infection, and bin it after using. Good hand hygiene is also important.
Dr Shanti Paramothayan is a consultant respiratory physician with more than 17 years of experience working in the NHS and in the private sector. She is a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians.