Say no to antibiotics and learn to deal with common winter illnesses yourself
Most common winter ailments like colds and flu won’t be helped by antibiotics. Try this handy guide to help your recovery
Happily, most common sicknesses, because they are caused by viruses, don’t require antibiotics. Photograph: iStock
As the coughs, colds and flu season progresses, it can be helpful to know what you can manage by yourself, when to see the doctor and whether you need antibiotics.
Undertheweather.ie, a comprehensive new website from the HSE, can help. Written by doctors, it provides practical information about common ailments.
Earaches, temperatures, sore throats and tummy upsets are never nice but the good news is that the vast majority will resolve themselves with time and a little TLC.
In the more serious battle against antibiotic resistance, that is very good news indeed. “Antibiotic resistance is really important to be aware of because it is not a problem we are storing up for the future, it is a problem now,” says Professor Martin Cormican, HSE national lead for HCAI/AMR.
“Every day I’m on clinical services we are managing issues where antibiotic resistance is making patient care harder.”
To ensure the antibiotics we have remain effective far into the future, we need to manage their use in a sustainable way, he says. Happily most common sicknesses, because they are caused by viruses, don’t require antibiotics.
You can expect a cold to last around seven days, with the first symptom usually a sore throat, followed by sneezing, a cough and a runny nose.
What you can do to help yourself: Drink plenty of fluids, rest up and eat healthily. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can provide pain relief, while nasal saline sprays can clear out your nose.
What you can do to protect others: Don’t cough or sneeze over people. Use a tissue and bin it. And wash your hands immediately afterwards to stop the virus spreading.
Remember: Green snot doesn’t mean you have a bacterial infection.
A cough often follows a cold and can last for up to three weeks. Any longer and you should see your doctor.
What you can do to help yourself: There is no quick way of getting rid of a cough. It will usually clear up after your immune system has defeated the bug that is causing it. To ease it, a tickly or chesty cough remedy can be bought over the counter in a pharmacy.
What you can do to protect others: Don’t forget your cough etiquette, as above.
Remember: Green phlegm does not necessarily mean there is a bacterial infection.
Earache usually comes on all of a sudden and the pain can be quite sharp. You may also have a high temperature.
What you can do to help yourself: Ask your pharmacist for over the counter medicines to help deal with the high temperature and pain relief.
What you can do to help others: Usually you don’t have to see a doctor unless you have a discharge from your ear.
Remember: The severe pain doesn’t normally last more than a day or two.
Symptoms such as sore throat, fever and muscle ache develop quickly, leaving you feeling very unwell. Headache is very common. You feel extremely weak and after a few days you might develop a cough.
What you can do to help yourself: Drink plenty of liquids to replace those lost through sweating. Get lots of rest and eat healthily. Ask your pharmacist – or get someone to ask for you – for paracetamol or ibuprofen for the muscle ache.
What you can do to protect others: People with flu are usually infectious a day before symptoms start and remain infectious for five or six days. Avoid all unnecessary contact with others during this time.
Remember: Some people, including those aged over 65 or who have a chronic medical condition are considered at risk from flu and should get a flu vaccine every year.
Rashes are usually caused by an allergy or an infection. If you have a rash and feel well, it is probably an allergic reaction, like hives. If you have a rash and do feel unwell, it is more likely you have an infection.
What you can do to help yourself: Generally antibiotics don’t treat rashes. Instead, hives can be treated with antihistamine tablets from your chemist. However, if you are feeling unwell with the rash, see your doctor.
What you can do to help others: If you or anyone else has a severe headache, vomiting, a high temperature, a stiff neck or sensitivity to light along with the rash, get medical help immediately as these are signs of meningitis. Be aware, meningitis doesn’t always cause a rash.
Remember: Do not use creams, especially steroid creams, on a rash unless your doctor advises it. They make it worse.
A high temperature is always a worry, especially in babies and young children. A normal temperature is between 36C and 36.8C. (96.8 and 98.24F). In children, any temperature of 38C (100.4F) or over is considered high. A high temperature usually indicates that you have an infection of some kind, including cold or flu. However, it can also be due to other infections, some of them more serious.
What you can do to help yourself: Most temperatures clear up within three days. Talk to your pharmacist about paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce temperature and relieve pain. If you feel particularly unwell or if you have a high temperature for more than three days, get medical advice.
What you can do to help others: In children, be alert not just to the temperature but to their overall alertness and responsiveness. In the main if they are responding to you and taking drinks, then, even if they are off form and not eating, that is a good sign. If they are drowsy, not drinking and not responding as normal, they need to see a doctor.
Remember: Dress your children normally – children with high temperatures should not be either under or over-wrapped. Do not use a cool cloth or sponge to get their temperature down.
A sore throat will usually clear up by itself in three to seven days.
What you can do to help yourself: Over the counter painkillers can help. Eat cool, soft food and, for adults and older children, suck lozenges or ice lollies. Local anastethetic sprays from your pharmacy can help relieve pain. Rest up to allow your body to heal.
What you can do to help others: A sore throat is usually the result of a viral infection. Washing your hands helps avoid spreading it. If a sore throat hasn’t gone within two weeks, you should see your doctor.
Remember: Some sore throats are caused by bacteria - this is known as a strep throat. With this you will usually feel sicker and take longer to get better.
Vomiting and diarrhoea can happen on their own or together. When they happen together it is called gastro-enteritis. This is caused by a tummy bug, usually from contaminated food or close contact with someone who already has it. Vomiting usually lasts between 6 and 12 hours and diarrhoea between 24 and 48 hours.
What you can do to help yourself: Drink plenty of liquids so you don’t become dehydrated. You don’t need to take anti-diarrhoea medicine and children should not be given it. Stay and home and rest.
What you can do to help others: Wash your hands to avoid spreading infection.
Remember: Don’t eat until six hours after vomiting but sip clear liquid, such as flat white lemonade. With diarrhoea you can keep eating but stick to starchy foods like toast, pasta or rice.
To find out more see undertheweather.ie