How to treat winter health conditions

Dr Unnati Desai Dr Unnati Desai National Lead for GP Services
Nuffield Health's GP National Lead, Dr Unnati Desai shares her expertise on some of the more common conditions, myths and issues that often arise during the winter, and how to recognise, understand and treat them

When the temperature drops it can affect a range of health conditions. As well as seasonal colds and flu, it may also impact our mental health as well as exacerbate pre-existing conditions like asthma. By taking the right precautions and learning how to treat these conditions you can help ensure that the winter period is as enjoyable as possible.

Cold sores and the causes

Many think that cold sores are linked to winter – predominately because of the name – but this is not the case. The herpes complex, which causes cold sores, is a virus that, once in your body, stays there.

There are two strains of the virus HSV-1 and HSV-2. Type one is usually linked to blisters on the facial skin and type two with ano-genital blisters. However, an increasing trend of HSV1 is seen causing ano-genital blisters/sores when transmitted through oral sex. HSV is a very common infection with as many as 7 in 10 people (70%) in the UK population having HSV1 and approximately 1 in 10 people (10%) having HSV2.

Herpes causes small, painful blisters or open sores in the ano-genital skin. If it affects the facial skin blisters appear on the lips, around the nose or inside the mouth. Symptoms usually occur within days to weeks of first exposure to the virus, but occasionally, the virus lies dormant with no symptoms.

Once in the body, the virus can be reactivated by UVR and trauma, and can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact if the person who has the virus is actively shedding the virus – this tends to start a few days before an outbreak occurs. Along with UVR and trauma, a lower immune system can allow an outbreak to occur.

How to protect yourself

Boosting the immune system with vitamins can help to reduce the number of outbreaks. Taking multivitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D can boost skin immunity.

Asthma and cold weather

Asthma is a lung condition that can cause issues with breathing. During the winter months, it can be affected by any infection that impacts the respiratory system, and these infections can cause acute flare ups of asthma, making asthma symptoms worse. Illnesses include viral infections such as common colds, influenza, Covid-19, as well as bacterial chest infections.

The change in temperature is also a factor. Cold air and an increase in central heating are drying to the environment, which can exacerbate asthma by increasing mucous production in the lungs. Where possible, we recommend keeping warm but ensure environments are humid, but not damp.

How to protect yourself

For those who suffer with asthma, during the colder months, keep your inhalers close, be aware of your environment (avoiding small spaces or crowded areas), maintain good hand hygiene and, if you feel unwell for a period of time, seek medical advice.

The ‘winter blues’

Seasonal Affective Disorder also known as ‘SAD’ or the ‘winter blues’ is a type of mood disorder specific to this season.

Due to our circadian rhythm, a natural process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle that we experience every 24 hours, the impact to lower our mood is more common in winter as it's darker.

Many of us find that we feel happier on a sunny day compared to gloomy winter ones. This is down to neurotransmitters in our brain, such as serotonin and melatonin, which are impacted by exposure to sunlight and vitamin D levels in our body.

Serotonin is a pre-cursor to melatonin and its synthesis is in part activated by Vitamin D. Serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters that help regulate the sleep-wake cycle – serotonin by promoting wakefulness and melatonin by promoting sleep.

Serotonin also helps regulate mood by boosting positive feelings of happiness and calmness, promoting memory and focus, and improving healthy gut digestion.

Studies also show that not enough exposure to sunlight can lead to a dip in serotonin, which, in turn, can result in depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

How to protect yourself

Light therapy can be very useful – whether in the bedroom to help sleep or at work if you're sat in an office all day. Alternatively, taking vitamin D tablets is recommended as we do not get enough UVR to promote natural synthesis in winter months, and ensuring you get outside whenever the weather permits, will all contribute to positive mental health.

Alternatively, you can speak to a mental health expert to further discuss how you're feeling.

Is ‘starve a fever, feed a cold’ a real thing?

We've all heard it, but we're here to tell you that this statement is a myth. For those suffering with cold or flu symptoms this year, be aware of the following;

Fan therapy

If you're getting a really high temperature, you need to remove clothing and get a fan on as it will bring the body temperature down as quickly as possible and will help you feel better. You may feel cold and want to wrap up, but this is one of the best ways to bring down body temperatures.

Cuddling up to a hot water bottle will not help, as much as we might want it to. If you're struggling with a cold and fever, wrapping up and getting a hot water bottle will keep your temperatures up. Fan therapy is one of the best things you can do when feeling unwell.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen

If you feel a cold coming on, these should be taken together, in their generic forms (at adult doses) rather than as a combination tablet, if no allergies. This allows you to ensure you take the correct adult dose at the right time and allows you to decide when to take them.

The majority of cold and flu tablets on the market have less paracetamol and ibuprofen in them, which is what helps to bring the temperatures down.

Mucus build-up

When we’re poorly, we get a build-up of mucus in our nasal passage and chest. Some will be blown or coughed up, but we get something called a ‘post nasal drip’, which is mucus that goes down the back of the nose to the throat.

This is why coughs can be worse in the morning – it doesn't necessarily mean that your symptoms are worse, but you’ve been lying down and mucus has pooled. If we swallow the mucus, it can make us feel queasy or irritate our gut.

Keep decongested

Keeping sinuses decongested is so important to help you feel better. We wouldn't recommend decongestant nasal sprays for more than a few days as these can cause long-term irritations to the nasal passages. Decongestant tablets can also help decrease mucus but should not be used at the same time as a decongestant nasal spray.

Steam inhalation is one of the best ways to keep our sinus passages clear of mucus, as steam loosens mucus, making it easier for us to blow our nose effectively.


With the rise of vaping, evidence is still out in terms of the effects on our health, however we already know that smokers are at risk of developing chronic obstructive airwaves disease, and these patients have a higher susceptibility for chest infections.

If you're asthmatic and a smoker, you're putting yourself at an even higher risk of attacks.

Diet and hydration

Stay hydrated, even during colder months. When we're unwell, we perspire more and can suffer from diarrhoea and vomiting, which all contribute to decreased hydration. In terms of fluids, you need salt, sugar and electrolytes so oral rehydration sachets from the pharmacy can improve hydration levels, or small amounts of drinks like full fat cola or glucose energy drinks can help settle an upset stomach.

If you're feeling queasy, be mindful of what you're eating – a light bland diet that your body finds easy to digest is the best way to allow digestion. If you are vomiting, then avoid dairy as it can make vomiting worse.

Probiotics or live yoghurts can be beneficial if you have diarrhoea as they help rebalance the natural gut flora.

Last updated Friday 13 January 2023

First published on Friday 2 December 2022