Winter is often a welcome change in Western Australia after our long, hot summers. But while we live in a temperate climate, winter in most parts means significant drops in temperatures, greater rainfall and storms. Several health conditions are particularly associated with our coldest season. We’ve prepared some tips to help protect you and your family from those illnesses most associated with winter.
- Prevent colds and flu and other infections
- Eat well
- Stay hydrated
- Keep active
- Keep warm
- Avoid household mould
- Minimise residential wood smoke
- Manage asthma
- Plan ahead before you travel
Colds and flu are particularly prevalent in winter. More than 200 viruses cause the common cold. Influenza is caused by a different group of viruses. Influenza is a more serious condition and in very severe cases can lead to death.
Antibiotics are not a suitable treatment for colds and flu because antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses.
Take steps to protect yourself from colds and flu this season.
- Get immunised and protect yourself from flu.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Throw tissues in the bin after you use them.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol based hand cleaners are also effective.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Try to avoid close contact with people who have a flu-like illness.
If you do have a cold or flu-like illness, stay home from work or school and limit contact with other people to keep from infecting them. No treatment will cure your cold, or make it go away much more quickly, but make yourself more comfortable by getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated.
Paracetamol will help relieve headache, muscle ache and fever.
Check the active ingredients on medications to be careful you don’t ‘double dose’ (many cold and flu medicines have paracetamol as an active ingredient).
Discuss medicines with your pharmacist before using or giving to children to make sure they are safe.
Learn more about flu and what to do if you get sick.
It’s tempting to eat more in winter, and to choose foods rich in carbohydrates and fats. A well balanced diet is important no matter what time of year it is and there is no need to increase food intake in winter. Try to eat foods that are high in protein and fibre and low in sugars and fats.
Foods high in antioxidants, protein and vitamins B, C, D and E are also good to include in your winter diet.
It’s important to drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated. In summer, the hot weather reminds us that we are thirsty but it’s easy to neglect hydration when the weather turns cool. Skin problems, like eczema, are prevalent in the winter months due to the drying effects of cold, windy weather and indoor heating. Keeping your body well hydrated will help keep your skin healthy, flush out toxins and ward off winter bugs.
It’s common to feel less motivated during the winter months and even getting out of bed can sometimes feel like a chore. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition associated with winter, and can be offset by keeping active and maintaining good contact with others. We’re lucky in Western Australia, as our Mediterranean climate means that while winter is our wettest season, we also enjoy many cool, sunny days. Try to get into a routine of getting out and doing some exercise, whether it is walking up the stairs instead of taking the lifts at work or going for a regular walk.
Check up on friends, relatives and neighbours who may be more vulnerable to cold weather. Cold weather is especially dangerous for older people or people with serious illnesses.
People with existing heart or respiratory (breathing) problems may have worse symptoms during a cold spell and for several days after temperatures return to normal.
To keep warm and well during periods of cold weather:
- keep curtains drawn and doors closed to block draughts
- have regular hot drinks and at least one hot meal a day if possible. Eating regularly helps keep energy levels up during winter.
- wear several light layers of warm clothes (rather than one chunky layer)
- keep as active as possible.
Winter rainfall and darkness can contribute to mould. Moulds are types of funghi that can grow on a range of materials that are damp and dark. Mould can lead to health problems including:
- runny nose
- eye irritations
- asthma/ respiratory infections
The most practical way to control mould is by ensuring good ventilation, heat and insulation.
Wood smoke can come from wood heaters, open fire places, backyard burning, backyard pizza ovens and chimineas.
Smoke is made up of fine particles which can be linked to harmful effects including:
- irritation of eyes, nose and throat
Low levels will only affect sensitive people including people with respiratory or cardiovascular disease, and the young and elderly. Higher levels can even affect healthy people.
Make sure you take steps to manage wood smoke:
- don’t use treated/ stained/ painted wood
- chop wood into smaller pieces
- store wood in a well aerated area
- don’t overfill your heater and ensure there is plenty of air circulation
- check your wood heater and chimney to ensure no smoke is being produced
- consider changing your heating system to gas or electric heaters.
Asthma affects 1 in 10 Australians. Colds and flu, more common in winter, are the most common triggers for asthma attacks in children.Breathing in cold air, wood smoke, and mould, all associated with winter, can also induce asthma symptoms.
- coughing – maybe a dry cough at first
- wheezing – a whistling or high pitched sound which may be heard as air is pushed out of narrow tight airways
- shortness of breath – breathing may become quicker and shallow. This leads to breaths out which are prolonged and forced
- tight chest – younger children may describe tummy ache, due the work of the “tummy” muscle (diaphragm) to assist with the work of breathing
- vomiting – in some asthma attacks, the person may vomit.
Severe and life threatening symptoms include:
Asthma can be treated by various medicated inhalers. Follow your asthma action plan as discussed with your doctor. If you are experiencing asthma symptoms for the first time, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you, or your child, are experiencing severe or life threatening symptoms seek urgent medical attention. Call 000 for an ambulance.
Many Western Australians, particularly older people, travel north in winter. There are simple measures you can take to protect their health while away.
Before travelling, visit your GP to discuss any health issues that may impact on your travel plans. A GP will also be able to provide you with a current list of their medications to take with you.
Tips for older travellers include:
- remember to pack medications and repeat scripts
- ensure medications are stored properly
- ensure scripts are filled ahead of time, to avoid running out of medication
- keep doctor, pharmacy, family and emergency numbers handy
- put in place a medication reminder system to ensure medications are taken on time (this could include setting an alarm)
- pack a first aid kit to use to mange small cuts and abrasions
- seek advice regarding travel insurance and ambulance cover before leaving.
If you are travelling overseas, check that your immunisations are up to date (external site)