Have yourself a healthy little Christmas
Arlene Harris gets the experts' advice on how to stay well over the holiday period
It's the most magical time of the year - well, it will be for those who don't succumb to the dreaded winter vomiting bug and any other ailment which rears its ugly head every chilly season.
We all want to be feeling our best over the Christmas holidays and we especially want our children to be in top shape so that they can enjoy the magic of the season and have a fun-filled break from school.
So, with that in mind, we asked some medical experts for their tips on how to stay fit and healthy over Christmas and right through to the New Year.
Dr Vida Hamilton, HSE national clinical advisor, says the first thing we should all do is get the flu vaccine - but she also says that practising basic hygiene at home is the best way to keep germs at bay.
"You can't get the flu from the flu vaccination so, first and foremost, we recommend getting this done," she says. "It is also very important to wash your hands frequently, as viruses can live for many days on tabletops and surfaces. So, by washing your hands regularly, you can protect yourself. People with colds and flu are infectious before symptoms begin to show, so the only way to protect yourself is handwashing.
"Help children by washing their hands before eating, after they use the toilet and, if they are unwell, keep them at home so as not to spread infection. Washing hands regularly with soap and water will also protect against the winter vomiting bug."
Dr Nuala O'Connor, a GP at Cork's Elmwood Medical Practice and a leading expert on antibiotic resistance, agrees. She says that parents need to teach their children how to cough and sneeze without spreading germs to other people.
"Viruses are spread through the air as tiny particles, which you inhale if someone carrying the virus coughs or sneezes near you, or if you touch a surface contaminated with virus particles and then touch your own face," she says. "So the best way to prevent you or your loved ones getting sick is for everyone to wash their hands regularly, especially before preparing or eating food; avoid touching their hands to their face and if you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, then turn away from people and cough into your elbow or a tissue, bin it and wash your hands.
"Kids love to interact and it's inevitable they will pick up infections from others so teach them the importance of handwashing and how to cough safely, as these are great safety life skills. But we cannot wrap them in cotton wool and most childhood infections are mild and self-limiting."
Handwashing will do a lot to keep bugs at bay but the norovirus - or winter vomiting bug - is airborne, so Dr Bernadette Carr, medical director of Vhi Healthcare, says parents need to be extra-vigilant.
"Most often, a vomiting bug will be due to a virus which travels in the air and is spread through contact with people who have it, or from touching surfaces or objects which have the virus on them," she explains. "Vomiting and diarrhoea in these cases can be very unpleasant but the vomiting usually clears in two to three days, while diarrhoea in a viral stomach infection may last up to a week. Fevers and feeling generally unwell will often go along with vomiting or diarrhoea.
"Thankfully, most cases of winter vomiting bug can be easily managed at home with rest and fluids. But it is important to remain well-hydrated - especially young children, who may easily become dehydrated."
Dr Carr has tips for helping children through this particularly unpleasant illness:
● Taking small sips of water often is a good idea, even with an upset stomach.
● Taking flat lemonade or oral rehydration salts is a good way to maintain blood sugar and energy levels.
● It is important that children get enough fluids even if their appetite is reduced.
● It is always important to be aware of any deterioration in children.
● Any child with a high temperature who does not settle with these measures, or who remains unduly lethargic, should be immediately brought to their GP.
● Encouraging fluids and small amounts of plain, high-energy food like toast or mashed potato can help to build up appetite and energy levels after a bug.
● Monitoring temperatures is a good idea.
● Your doctor may prescribe age-appropriate doses of paracetamol or ibuprofen if a temperature is present.
Dr Carr also says Christmas can be particularly stressful and this can increase the hormone cortisol, which in turn can reduce the immune system's ability to fight infection - so it is vital for the whole family to get enough sleep and adequate levels of exercise to help prevent colds and flu.
"Exercise will improve your overall fitness, boosting your immune system, and healthy levels of sleep will also contribute to better immunity before a bug or virus hits your system," she advises.
"Regular brisk walking or outdoor activities are a great way to get some exercise. As well as being free and accessible to all, walking is a fantastic aerobic activity which helps to improve the heart and lungs, and there is evidence that regular exercise helps to clear your mind and boost your mood, as endorphins (all of which help to make you feel good) get released into the bloodstream.
"Encouraging children to enjoy some fun outdoor activity will help boost vitamin D levels but getting them to wrap up warm with a coat, hat and gloves is essential. They don't often notice the cold until they are practically shivering and this is one way they become more susceptible to catching any viruses. But sunlight boosts the level of vitamin D produced in the body and this vitamin plays an important part in improving the immune system, as well as helping to maintain healthy bones.
"So during the holidays, start each day with a short walk as the first positive step to a healthy new routine for the family."
Dr Nuala O'Connor agrees with the 'staying active' approach: "Getting out and about has nothing to do with the weather from a scientific point of view, as physical activity of any kind - whether it's taking Granny for a stroll around the park, young kids to a playground or the whole family going on a brisk country walk - is all good," she says. "The more exercise, the better for everyone's health."
All of the experts agree that there are a few simple steps that will help keep the family healthy - and these include:
● Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds to provide yourself with the nutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs.
● Hand hygiene is also very important - washing your hands with warm water before eating and after coughing or sneezing will help to stem the spread of a virus.
● Teach children to reach for a tissue if they are about to sneeze, or use the inside of their elbow as a preventative measure to stop the spread of the virus.
● It may be difficult, but avoiding sick people as much as possible will reduce exposure to the illness and will lower the risk of getting a virus.
● If you or your child has a fever, you may need extra fluids so it is worth speaking to a GP or pharmacist for information on symptomatic relief of any colds or infections. While most bugs will run their course, there are some cases where you will need to seek medical assistance.
● If worse comes to worst, it is better to seek medical attention over the holiday period rather than waiting, in order to prevent an illness or injury from deteriorating further.
In case of emergency
While you might not consider cooking Christmas dinner a risky activity, lots of personal injuries occur at home over the holidays - so our medical experts say it's vital to be prepared for the unexpected, whether that means knowing what to do in a minor emergency such as cutting your hand, or treating a minor burn or scald effectively.
And as well as keeping the phone number of your GP, out-of-hours medical service, minor injury service and 24-hour medical advice line within easy reach, it is also important to ensure your medicine cabinet has all the basics in case of emergency - including:
● Paracetamol or ibuprofen, or child-appropriate alternative.
● Easily accessible first-aid kit including a good-quality scissors, plasters, burn gel, sterile gloves and wipes, as well as a selection of bandages.
● Peppermint oil or antacids to treat mild indigestion.
● Flat soda or ginger ale to help soothe an upset stomach.
● Oral rehydration solutions for vomiting or diarrhoea (but clear lemonade will substitute fine).
● Antiseptic spray or wipes and bandages for cuts and scrapes.