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Winter illnesses

In winter, cold weather and spending more time indoors mean illnesses spread more easily. These can impact our health whatever our age, but as we get older, our immune systems find it harder to fight off bugs. The good news is that there are things you can do to protect yourself and stay warm and well during the winter season.


Why does the cold weather impact our health?

As the weather gets colder, chest infections and increased blood pressure are more common. In some cases, this can put us at a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. This is why it’s really important that we heat our homes to a comfortable temperature and wrap up warm when we're on the move. It's a good idea to keep your hands and feet warm and cover your face, mouth and nose when you're out and about, too.

Cold weather can also make existing health problems worse, and the risk of this increases as we age. For example, some existing health conditions – like asthma and arthritis – are affected by colder temperatures. Symptoms can worsen and our ability to manage our conditions may decrease.

There are a number of reasons why you’re more likely to become ill during winter:

  • some viruses can survive more easily in cold conditions
  • the cold can make it more difficult for your immune system to fight off illnesses
  • illnesses spread more easily because we spend more time with people indoors
  • the cold weather can make it harder to manage, and increase the severity of, some long-term conditions.

What illnesses and conditions are more common during winter?

There are many illnesses that are more common in cold weather or are at least made worse by the cold. We’ve listed some of the more common ones below.

Flu

The flu (known as ‘influenza’) is an illness that affects the respiratory system, including the nose, throat and lungs. It’s caused by the influenza virus and is very contagious. It’s in season from October through until March, and although you’re more likely to catch it when it’s cold out, you can still catch it when the weather’s mild.

Find out more about the flu

Common cold

There are many different viruses that can cause the common cold – however, ‘rhinoviruses’ cause most colds. Symptoms of the common cold include things like a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat and a headache. Colds are easily spread to other people, especially in winter time.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature below 35°C. It’s a medical emergency, just like a stroke or a heart attack, so it must be treated in hospital. Symptoms include shivering, slurred speech and slow breathing.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus (also referred to as ‘COVID-19’) is part of a family of viruses that includes the common cold and more serious respiratory illnesses such as SARS. Coronavirus affects your lungs and airways and is spread very easily.

Find out more about coronavirus

Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is a common condition that’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral stomach bug. It causes diarrhoea and vomiting and, in some cases, a mild fever. In adults, gastroenteritis is often caused by the norovirus which is more common in winter (it’s often called the ‘winter vomiting bug’).

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when skin becomes damaged by being exposed to freezing temperatures – usually below -0.55°C. It can affect any part of your body, but extremities – like the hands, feet and ears – are more likely to be affected.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia occurs when the lungs become inflamed. It’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Symptoms include a cough, shortness of breath and a high temperature. You’re more at risk of becoming seriously ill from pneumonia if you’re over 65 or if you have a heart or lung condition. You can catch pneumonia from someone who has it, or you can get it if you have another infection – such as the flu or coronavirus.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed. It’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Symptoms are often similar to the common cold or flu and include things like a cough, chest pain when coughing, shortness of breath and a sore throat. Bronchitis itself isn’t contagious, but some of the infections that cause it are.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

SAD is a type of depression that occurs during particular seasons, though it’s more common in winter when there are fewer hours of daylight and less exposure to sunlight. Symptoms include low mood, lacking energy and losing interest in things that you usually enjoy. If you’re feeling low or out of sorts, you should book an appointment with a healthcare professional.

Find out more about seasonal affective disorder (SAD)


How can I protect myself from cold weather illnesses?

There are a few simple things you can do to help protect yourself from cold weather illnesses. 

Get vaccinated

Getting vaccinated is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from many of the illnesses mentioned above. You’re entitled to a free flu jab from your GP or pharmacist if you’re aged 65 or over.

Find out more about the flu jab

There’s also a one-off jab – the ‘pneumo’ jab – that protects you against pneumonia, meningitis, and septicaemia. You should speak to your doctor if you’re aged 65 or over and haven’t had this yet.

There’s also a vaccine to protect you against coronavirus, with booster jabs being offered to older people, as well as people who have a weakened immune system.

Find out more about the coronavirus vaccine

Keep warm

Staying warm helps your body to fight certain illnesses so make sure you’re keeping warm – both indoors and when you’re out and about. If you’re at home and sitting down, use a hot water bottle and wrap up with a shawl or blanket. When you’re out, make sure you keep your hands and face warm by wearing a gloves, a hat and a scarf. Covering your mouth with your scarf helps warm up the air you breathe in.

If you're struggling to pay your heating bills, we have information and advice that may help. 

Find out more about what support you could get with paying your energy bills

Keep active   

Staying active generates heat and helps to keep you warm so, when you’re inside, try to move about every hour or so. If you find walking difficult, you could try some simple chair-based exercises while sitting or holding onto the back of a chair.

Wash your hands regularly

Regularly washing your hands can go a long way to stop the spread of germs. If you can’t access a sink and some soap when you’re out and about, make sure to carry some hand sanitiser with you.

Eat well

It’s important to make sure you’re eating enough – especially in winter. Being underweight makes it harder for your body to keep warm and fight infections. So it’s better to eat something rather than nothing at all. If you can, though, try to include a range of foods in your diet – and aim to eat fruit and vegetables every day. This will help you stay healthy and combat any winter bugs that are going around.

Quit smoking

Giving up smoking will make your breathing easier and will strengthen your immune system, to help it fight off illnesses. It can be very difficult to give up smoking – especially if you’ve done it for most of your life. But it’s never too late to try and make the change. Ask your doctor about NHS services that can help you stop.

Consider taking a Vitamin D supplement

We need vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Our bodies create it from sunlight but during the winter months, the sun isn’t strong enough and it’s difficult to get the amount we need from our diet. This is why you might want to speak to your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter.

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Last updated: Apr 08 2024

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