Common viral infections in winter can be dangerous if you are over the age of 65 or have a chronic illness.
These viral infections include:
- flu (influenza)
- norovirus (a stomach bug causing vomiting and diarrhoea)
- respiratory tract infections - for example, the common cold, pneumonia or tonsillitis
You also need to be aware of the ongoing risk of COVID-19 (coronavirus).
People who are at risk of bad infections
Everyone over 65 years of age is at risk of bad infections in winter.
You are also at risk if you have one of the following chronic diseases:
- chronic lung problems (COPD, asthma)
- chronic heart disease
- chronic kidney or liver disease
- conditions or treatment that weakens the immune system
- frailty (poor nutrition and mobility)
You do not need an antibiotic if you have a viral infection. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses.
If you are fit and healthy you can usually get over these infections by:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- using medicine you buy from a pharmacy or shop without a prescription
But viral infections are very contagious. They can spread quickly before you notice the symptoms. It can be difficult to stop them spreading to people who are vulnerable.
Emergency action required: Go to your nearest emergency department (ED) if:
- you feel very unwell and feel you need urgent care
You will be seen, even when it is full or very busy.
Protect yourself and others from infection
To try and avoid infection you should:
- get vaccinated against flu and COVID-19
- wear a face mask in crowded places, if you want to
- cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve - put used tissues into a bin
- clean objects and surfaces that other people touch
- avoid people with obvious symptoms of infection
- clean your hands properly and regularly
If you have a chronic condition, review your medicine and management of your chronic disease with your public health nurse (PHN), GP or pharmacist.
What to do if you get ill
Signs of being ill with a common infection such as the flu usually include:
- feeling very tired
- losing your appetite
- having aches and pains
You may not have a temperature or chills.
It is likely that you have a viral illness. Antibiotics will not help. Keep drinking fluids, pee regularly and take time to rest and recover.
If your illness is not getting worse, you can usually treat it at home. Medicines available without a prescription will help to treat your symptoms.
Talk to your pharmacist or GP if you are in one of the at-risk groups, or are worried about your symptoms.
If you live alone make sure someone knows you are feeling unwell. They can check that you are not getting worse and get supplies for you.
If part of your body is not working properly because of infection you'll need to be checked.
What to do if your baby has an infection
Signs that a baby is unwell include:
- unusually dry nappies or less than 4 wet nappies over a 24 hour period - this shows the baby is not taking in enough liquid
- poor feeding
- a weak cry
- feel limp and have little control of their muscles
These are serious signs that should be checked, even if your baby has no temperature.
Infections in young adults
Phone your GP if you are a young adult and:
- have severe leg pain
- are not able to stand up properly
This can be a warning sign of something serious.
Vaccination is the most effective way of preventing infections.
Vaccination works by getting your immune system to produce antibodies against the disease.
There is no recommended vaccine for the winter vomiting bug.
You may feel sore for a little while after the jab.
The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for people with chronic illnesses such as a heart or liver condition.
It protects you against serious and potentially fatal pneumococcal infections such as pneumonia or meningitis. It is also known as the pneumonia vaccine.
It is free to people aged 65 and over, or if you have certain conditions.
COVID-19 vaccines will protect you from serious illness from COVID-19.
If an infection gets worse
In some cases, a viral infection can spread inside the body and affect organs such as the brain or lungs. It is important to notice the signs early on for rapid and effective treatment.
Seek urgent medical care if you or a person you know becomes confused, agitated or difficult to rouse following an infection.
Signs an infection has spread to your lungs include:
- rapid breathing
- not being able to finish a sentence without needing to grab another breath
- blue-tinged lips
Your hands may be clammy, white and cold. You may have dizziness that can only be relieved by lying down.
If you have not peed in over 12 hours and have no urge to pee, then phone your GP.
Signs an infection has spread to your stomach include:
- severe pain
If you have sore, red and swollen areas of skin oozing pus, then contact your GP.