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A shot in the arm to ward off winter woes; Dear Miriam.


I look forward to the bright frosty mornings that winter brings, but not the host of health problems that also come with the season.

These range from chilblains to the dreaded flu. Personally, I swear by the flu jab. I've had the jab for the past 15 years and, as a result, never get the virus from October through to March.

If I do get flu, it tends to be during the spring - after the vaccine (which lasts for around six months) has worn off.

However, I have no plans to rush off for a swine flu jab this winter - and I don't think anyone else should do so as a knee-jerk reaction to all the current hysteria.

In my opinion only special cases - for example people with chest or heart problems - should have it. Check with your GP if you're not sure.

Meanwhile, here's my advice on avoiding a few common winter health problems during the coming months...


The common cold causes symptoms such as a stuffy, runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough. Flu is more severe and involves a high temperature and sore, aching body. With true flu you can't get out of bed.

Causes: Both are caused by contagious viruses and picked up when someone coughs or sneezes near you, or if you touch a surface, such as a door handle, recently touched by a sufferer.

Prevent it: Wash your hands regularly, especially after using public transport or looking after a sick person, and avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose. Also keep your nose warm - the colder your nose is, the more vulnerable you are to picking up cold and flu viruses. The flu vaccine is free if you're over 65 or have a serious medical condition.

Fix it: Colds and the flu usually get better by themselves within seven days. Ease symptoms by drinking water and getting plenty of rest. Paracetamol, decongestants or vapour rubs


Hospitals see a rise in patients admitted for asthma at this time of year, as cold air can trigger attacks of the potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms of a severe asthma attack include wheezing, difficulty breathing and blue lips or fingernails.

Causes: Thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Asthmatics' bronchi (tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs) are very sensitive and certain triggers can irritate them - causing the muscles around them to tighten, which makes it difficult to breathe. As well as cold air, common triggers include dust mites, fur, smoke and chest infections.

Prevent it: Identify your triggers by making a note of when symptoms get worse. Set up a personal asthma action plan with your GP, which includes recognising signs your asthma is getting worse, what medication to take and when to seek emergency help.

Fix it: There's no cure for asthma, but if you're having an attack use your reliever inhaler, and seek medical help immediately if symptoms are severe.


This type of depression occurs in the winter and can leave people feeling lethargic, in a low mood, having sleeping problems, anxiety and cravings for sweet food.

Causes: Exposure to sunlight stimulates skin to produce vitamin D, so in winter it's very easy to become low in this vitamin. This affects the brain's levels of melatonin (the hormone that controls when we sleep and wake), and serotonin (the feel-good hormone).

Prevent it: Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible - a brisk 10-minute walk outside at lunchtime will help. My friend warded off the condition by getting a dog and having to be outdoors once a day. Make your work and home as light as possible and sit near windows. Eat foods rich in vitamin D such as dairy products and fish.

Fix it: Light therapy - sitting in front of a special light box - can help some sufferers, but is not currently available on the NHS. Visit to find out more. Antidepressants may also help in severe cases by boosting serotonin levels.


Chilblains are itchy, red swellings on the skin, which can become painful. They usually affect toes but sometimes nose, ears and fingers. Untreated, they can dry out, crack and become infected.

Causes: When it's cold, blood vessels in the feet and other extremities become narrow. If suddenly exposed to warmth, the blood vessel quickly expands and fluid leaks into the surrounding tissue causing swelling. Risk factors include smoking and family members who suffer.

Prevent it: Improve circulation by keeping active and avoiding tight shoes. Keep your whole body warm.

Warm shoes on a radiator before you put them on and wear clean, warm socks to bed. Moisturise feet regularly to stop skin cracking.

Fix it: Rub uninfected chilblains with an over-the-counter lotion. If chilblains have cracked, use an antiseptic cream and see your GP. If you have recurring chilblains, there are medications that can help dilate the small blood vessels.


Also known as dead finger syndrome, this condition causes fingers to become cold, white and numb. They then turn blue, and finally red and tender. An attack can last for several hours.

Causes: In people with Raynaud's, the small blood vessels that supply blood to the extremities overreact to cold temperatures. This makes them narrow more than usual and allows a very limited amount of blood to flow through them. Symptoms can be triggered by chilly weather or running hands under a cold tap. In some cases an underlying condition, such as illness or injury, triggers the problem.

Prevent it: Control your attacks by keeping warm, quitting smoking (to improve circulation), taking regular exercise and avoiding touching cold objects. Portable heating gadgets, including warmers for gloves, socks or pockets can also help. Also, ask your GP to review any medication you take for other conditions, as some can worsen Raynaud's.

Fix it: It sometimes goes away on its own, but if symptoms are severe, your doctor can prescribe medication that works by opening up the small blood vessels and improving circulation.

Additional research: CAROLINE JONES
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 27, 2009
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