“Respiratory infections are generally more common in winter, partly because viruses survive for longer in colder conditions, thereby increasing your chances of coming into contact with them,” says Andrew Easton, Professor of Virology at Warwick University. “People also tend to spend more time indoors during the winter months, increasing the chances of catching something.”
According to Prof Easton, the viral particles are transmitted by aerosols - liquid droplets in the air - which travel some distance indoors and can exist on hard surfaces for hours or even days.
Here are the five main infections at large this winter.
Respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, is a common winter bug that spreads via coughing and sneezing. “While RSV usually causes cold-like symptoms, it can lead to a nasty chest infection called bronchiolitis,” says Prof Easton.
Bronchiolitis is most common in young children - the majority of whom have had it by the age of two - and the elderly. The illness is responsible for around one in six of all UK child admissions to hospital during the winter months, and there has recently been a surge in RSV, with an average of 133 children’s beds closed to new patients last week due to outbreaks of the illness. That's more than five times higher than this time last year.
“If your child is experiencing breathing difficulties, contact a doctor as they can administer a jab which can fight against severe infection,” says Prof Easton. “Steroids can be used to treat severe cases in adults.”
Caused by the influenza virus, flu spreads through coughing and sneezing and causes cold-like symptoms. Hospital admissions for the virus have risen by 40 per cent in the last fortnight - from 482 cases last week to 344 the week before, according to NHS England data.
The key difference with flu - as opposed to 'just' a cold - is that patients tend to experience joint pains and difficulty breathing,” says Prof Easton. “Maintaining good hygiene is crucial to avoiding catching the virus.”
Prof Easton recommends using disposable tissues, washing your hands regularly, wiping down surfaces with antiseptic wipes and coughing into your elbow if possible.
He says: “There is a good flu vaccine which people should still get as the period over which flu is present will last for a few more months.
Flu can be serious, so do speak to your GP if suffering bad symptoms. "An antiviral drug can reduce the impact of the virus. says Prof Easton.”
The current dominant Covid variant in the UK - Omicron BA.5 - is much less severe than the original variant we experienced at the start of the pandemic. The virus typically causes a dry cough and sore throat as well as cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose.
“Although the symptoms are similar to other respiratory diseases, Covid tends to target the lower respiratory tract, causing tightening of the chest and a dry cough,” says Prof Easton.
Hospital admissions for the disease increased slightly in the last week but still remain well below this year’s peak in April.
“Should you feel symptoms coming on, take a lateral flow test to be on the safe side and avoid mixing with others,” says Prof Easton. “If the symptoms are debilitating, you need to seek medical help because there are antiviral treatments available to stop the disease progressing to its most severe stages.”
The Common Cold
A cold can be a nuisance, causing coughing, a scratchy throat and a very runny nose. But thankfully, it doesn't lead to more serious problems such as breathing difficulties.
“You can take paracetamol or home remedies to manage the symptoms of a cold, but there is no proven treatment to get rid of it. The only thing you can do is to let nature take its course,” says Prof Eastmon. “A common cold typically clears up within three to five days, but you should contact your GP if symptoms last for more than two weeks.”
Unlike the other winter bugs, Strep A is caused by a group of bacteria called Group A Streptococci bacteria.
“The bacteria usually triggers mild infections. However, it can become serious if the bacteria is invasive - meaning it gets into part of the body where it is not usually found, such as the lungs or the bloodstream,” says Prof Easton.
Infections caused by Strep A - which most commonly affect children between the ages of five to 15 - include the skin infection impetigo, scarlet fever and strep throat.
Prof Easton says: “Symptoms to look out for include a sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Parents should contact their GP if they feel their child’s condition is worsening, or they are eating much less than normal.
“The good news is that - if caught in time - Group A Streptococcal infection can be treated with antibiotics, most commonly penicillin.”
How to protect your family’s health
“Most of us can get a vaccine for flu, and [this year’s jab] is a good match [for the strain in circulation],” says immunologist Professor Sheena Cruickshank from the University of Manchester. While most adults under 50 are not entitled to a free jab, Prof Cruickshank recommends booking a paid-for one with your local pharmacy even if you’re a healthy younger adult.
Many infections are transmitted via the air we breathe. “So look at the spaces you’re in and how crowded they are,” says Prof Cruickshank. “The more poorly ventilated they are, the more likely it is that infections will be circulating.”
Bring back the mask
“Several studies have shown there’s not a lot of air change on public transport,” she adds. “Wear one to avoid Covid, flu or RSV [respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of coughs, colds and mild respiratory illness, and can cause severe disease such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia for babies].”
Watch your diet and stress levels
“With the cost of living crisis, so many people are under stress, which is very bad for the immune system,” says Prof Cruickshank. Failure to eat well, or enough, also takes its toll. “Make what you eat nutritious.” Experts recommend a Mediterranean diet rich in different coloured fruit and vegetables to maximise nutrient intake. The Government also advises a daily vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter.
Be vigilant about symptoms
After a handful of high profile child deaths, parents are worried about the spread of Strep A, although in the vast majority of cases it causes relatively mild illness. But, says Prof Cruickshank, look out for spots or redness on your child’s tongue, for lethargy and not going to the bathroom. These are red flags that may warrant medical attention. Otherwise, fever should be kept down with painkillers like paracetamol, and the sick family member should stay hydrated.
Practise hand and surface hygiene
Maintaining the careful hand-washing habits we adopted during the pandemic will continue to serve us well by reducing our risk of contracting bugs from surfaces. Norovirus, for instance, can be passed on via surfaces as well as through aerosol transmission, and survives very well on our taps and kitchen counters. “You have to use harsh detergents and bleaches [to kill it],” says Prof Cruickshank.