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GPs see more minor illness in January and February than any other time of year. A combination of overindulgence during the festive season knocking our immune systems and close contact indoors in the cold wet weather means party time for the bugs!
And it's not just the sniffles we need to worry about. January is usually a time when we begin to think about our health. Millions of Britons make New Years Resolutions and most of them will involve weight, exercise, alcohol or cigarettes. So let's take a look at what we can do to improve our health this year …
We are what we eat
Most of us will gain a pound or two over the Christmas and New Year break and our best chance of losing it again is sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for many of us though, the couple of pounds this year may be added to the couple of pounds last year and the year before that. We are getting heavier as a nation - one in five men and one in four British women are now clinically obese, and at least half of all men and a third of all women are overweight. Obesity, and its consequences, costs the NHS billions of pounds. Most of us know that being overweight puts us at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, but there is now good evidence that obesity is linked to less obvious conditions such as infertility, depression and even cancer - obese women are 50% more likely to die from breast cancer and the fatter you are the more likely you are to develop other cancers including cancer of the bowel, kidney, womb and prostate. So if a slightly tighter waistband is not enough to motivate you this year, maybe your health should be - slim people live longer.
And drink …
Alcohol is the most widely used and abused drug across the globe and never more so than during the party season. The Royal College of Physicians recommends that women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, 21 units for men (a unit being a small glass of wine or half a pint of beer), but one in four men and one in six women in the UK regularly exceed the recommended limits. Alcohol can damage virtually every organ in the body, but the most recognised is liver disease and for the two million or more Britons who can be described as heavy drinkers, permanent liver damage is a real risk. You do not have to drink on a daily basis either - there is concern that binge drinkers could be at greater risk of developing severe liver disease than continuous drinkers.
A bit like obesity, we are drinking more as a nation now than ever before and the greatest rise in consumption is in young women. Women are more sensitive to the adverse effects of alcohol than men. I'm not suggesting total abstinence here (believe me I'm partial to a glass of Chablis too!)
but take a look at your alcohol consumption and be honest - if you are regularly exceeding the recommended limits you are putting your health on the line.
Run the risk
We are becoming an increasingly sedentary country with many of us taking no formal exercise at all - sorry "being on my feet all day" and "rushing around after the kids" doesn't count! Aerobic exercise, where we get our pulse rates up and start to puff, works the most important muscle in our bodies, our heart, and our heart is like anything else - use it or lose it. It's never too late to start and ideally we should all be exercising for at least 30 minutes five times a week. That doesn't have to mean high tech equipment - a skipping rope is just as effective and a lot cheaper than your average gym membership. To get the most benefit, you should aim for a pulse rate between 70 and 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). To calculate your MHR, simply subtract your age from 220, so, if you are 40, your MHR is 180, making your optimum training range 70 - 85 per cent of 180 i.e. 126 - 153 beats per minute. It is worth investing in a pulse monitor, which is worn like a watch or as a band around your chest and is available from most good sports shops. If you can keep it up, you will feel and look fitter and here is the good news - when you exercise like this you boost your metabolic rate for around eight hours afterwards so you will actually burn more calories sitting watching telly long after you have finished your workout!
There’s no smoke without fire
Cigarette smoking is the single largest avoidable cause of death and disease in the UK. It is estimated that if everyone gave up smoking, we would save 8 million general practice consultations and 7 million prescriptions at a cost of £140 million a year and there has never been a better time to try to give up. Nicotine replacement therapy and bupropion (a new drug treatment for nicotine addiction) are now available on prescription and most surgeries have access to smoking cessation clinics. Attending such clinics is your best chance of staying off the cigarettes, with a long term quit rate of one in five - probably the most cost-effective healthcare intervention going. The health benefits of giving up smoking cannot be underestimated and they start almost immediately! Just twenty minutes after your last cigarette, your pulse and blood pressure fall, by 48 hours you should notice an improvement in your sense of taste and smell and by day three the bronchial tubes relax, breathing becomes easier and energy levels rise. From two weeks, circulation improves and by a year the risk of a heart attack falls by 50 per cent. At 10 years the risk of lung cancer falls to half that of a smoker and by 15 years it's as though you never smoked! And it's not only our lungs and hearts that suffer with smoking - smokers are more likely to have problems with fertility, impotence, osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) and even macular degeneration - the commonest cause of blindness in UK adults. If you are a smoker and you do nothing else for your health this year - give it up. It will make all the difference.
Jab worth doing
Flu accounts for 12,000 deaths a year, many more in an epidemic. In the winter of 1989-90, the death toll rose to nearer 30,000 and sadly we are well overdue another epidemic. To be fair most of us survive flu well, but it is a pretty debilitating illness. I once heard it said that if you are in bed with a cold and someone drops a winning lottery ticket outside your front door you will rush out to get it. If you have flu you just can't be bothered! Compare that to an injection in the arm, which may be a bit sore for a few hours and at worst can cause a mild flu like illness for a coupe of days and I know which I would choose! Anyone over 65, diabetics, those with chronic lung, or heart disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system or living in residential care is eligible for a flu jab on the NHS. If you don't fall into one of these groups but would like the vaccine, you should be able to have it done privately and do not forget, because the flu virus changes each year, you will need the latest jab. Last year’s vaccine won't protect you from this year's strain.
British adults can expect to get an average of two or three coughs and colds a year and there is some evidence that the number of minor infections and the length of the symptoms could be reduced by taking a daily dose of echinacea. If you are otherwise well, it's probably worth a try but remember, nothing in this world is all good and just because something is herbal it does not necessarily mean it is harmless. Echinacea can be toxic to the liver and whilst it is safe for most people, if you are taking prescription drugs that can also affect the liver, the combination could be dangerous. (Always check with your pharmacist before taking any herbal remedy).
High dose vitamin C (500mg twice a day) and zinc, taken as an intranasal gel or in lozenge form, have both been shown to reduce the duration of cold symptoms, and one small study reported a reduction in the frequency of cold sore attacks in people taking lysine supplements.
We can all do something to improve our health this year, but before you rush off to start your new smoke free life of abstinence, exercise and healthy eating, one last piece of advice - stay out of the doctor's waiting room as much as possible - what a wonderful breeding ground for every bug known to man!
Some chemists run a minor ailment service, which means that they can supply medicines for certain specific conditions. Alternatively you can get advice from NHS direct.
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