Older people are particularly at risk from a winter illness. It can trigger or aggravate certain existing conditions or create new ones, tending to lead to an increase in hospital admissions and GP visits as the temperature drops.
During the winter of 2017-2018, more than 50,000 people in England and Wales are estimated to have died because of seasonal conditions – known by statisticians as “excess winter deaths”.
This is the highest recorded figure in 40 years. Experts blame the increase partly on flu viruses and below-average winter temperatures.
These excess winter deaths were highest among people aged 85-plus, and more than one-third were caused by medical conditions damaging the respiratory system.
In this guide to winter illnesses that put older people at risk, we’ll be looking at influenza and other ailments that are prevalent during cold weather – and what you can do to help protect yourself against them.
Flu in vulnerable older people can be a killer. Most at risk include people aged 65-plus and those already suffering from a long-term disorder such as diabetes or lung disease – common health issues among older adults.
Flu is caused by highly-infectious and unpredictable influenza viruses that infect your nose, throat and lungs.
Symptoms of flu – which may initially be mistaken for a common cold – include:
- Sore throat.
- Body aches and pains.
Doctors can prescribe an antiviral medication for flu but usually, you can treat it yourself with:
- Bed rest and keeping warm.
- Ibuprofen or paracetamol to ease aches and pains and reduce temperature.
- Plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
The best way to avoid coming down with flu is to have a flu jab. The vaccine, which lasts for a year, is available free through the NHS for people 65 or older and those with a serious, long-term medical condition such as bronchitis or diabetes.
Your GP will be able to tell you whether you’re at risk of catching flu, and, if you are, arrange for a vaccination.
Asthma is a long-term condition caused by inflammation of lung airways. If you have asthma, cold air can worsen symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath.
- Tight chest.
You can help to avoid a winter asthma attack by:
- Staying inside during very cold, windy weather.
- Covering your mouth and nose loosely with a scarf if you have to go out.
- Being extra vigilant about taking your medication.
- Keeping your inhaler close at hand.
Cardiac arrest is more common in winter as the cold weather pushes up blood pressure. This puts extra strain on the heart, which also has to work harder to preserve body heat. Those most at risk of cardiac arrest are women aged 55-plus and men 45 and older.
Symptoms of a heart problem include:
- Pressure in your chest or arms.
- Abdominal pain.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Cold sweats.
Cardiac arrest is a life-threatening emergency. If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 999 for an ambulance immediately.
You can help to keep your heart healthy during cold weather by making sure your home is warm and you’re not chilly in bed. When you go out, wrap up well and wear a hat and gloves.
Norovirus – the winter vomiting bug – is a notoriously infectious stomach disorder that’s unpleasant but typically lasts only a couple of days.
Apart from getting norovirus from other people, you can also pick up the bug by:
- Touching your mouth after handling anything with the virus on it.
- Eating food handled by someone with norovirus.
Besides nausea and vomiting, other symptoms of norovirus include:
- High temperature.
- Aching legs and arms.
Washing your hands frequently is the best way to stop norovirus spreading. If you’re suffering from diarrhoea and/or vomiting, it’s crucial to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
Hypothermia – a dangerous drop in body temperature – can be a problem among older inactive people, especially during the colder months. This winter illness can occur if the elderly are not eating properly.
Causes of hypothermia include:
- Insufficient clothing in cold weather.
- Getting cold in wet clothes.
- Living in a cold house.
Early signs of hypothermia are:
- Pale, cold skin.
- Impaired speech.
Hypothermia can be serious without prompt treatment. If you think you or someone else may have hypothermia, call 999.
The common cold is an infectious viral ailment that can be especially severe as you get older and your immune system struggles to combat infections.
Signs of a cold include:
- Sore throat.
- Runny nose.
You should be able to treat a cold without seeing your doctor. You may be able to get better faster by:
- Getting plenty of rest and sleep.
- Staying warm.
- Drinking plenty of water.
- Gargling with salt water to ease a sore throat.
Your pharmacist can advise you on the best medicines to treat a cold.
You can help to avoid colds by washing your hands regularly to kill bugs you may have picked up from surfaces such as door handles and light switches. Use disposable tissues instead of fabric handkerchiefs to avoid constantly re-infecting your hands.
When to Seek Medical Attention for a Winter Illness
If you succumb to mild winter illnesses like a sore throat or cold, your immune system may be able to cope without medical intervention.
However, more serious conditions – such as hypothermia or heart problems – typically require professional attention as a matter of urgency.
In any case, if symptoms of a winter illness persist and you aren’t getting better or are beginning to feel worse, it’s always advisable to see your doctor.