Winter is a difficult time of year for healthcare providers because of a toxic combination of factors that make illnesses and injuries more likely. Cold weather takes its toll on the body – especially in the very young and very old – which in turn puts pressure on the healthcare system.
Coughs and Sneezes
As the temperature drops the incidence of coughs, sneezes and other transmittable infections rises. This is due mainly to the fact that people are spending a greater proportion of time indoors where viruses and bacteria can spread more quickly from person to person, or person to surface and back to person again.
It is important that viral infections are not treated with antibiotics. Many patients will come in demanding that they are given something when rest, fluids, and paracetamol are all that is required. It is equally important that more serious complaints are not missed by assuming that a patient is simply suffering from a cold.
Around five days after a cold snap begins it is usual to see a peak in the number of stroke patients admitted. 12 days after the onset of cold weather there is also usually a peak in the number of admissions related to acute respiratory conditions. However, the number of patients presenting at A&E is actually lower in the winter – although the number presenting with respiratory symptoms almost doubles, with less than 1,000 per day in the summer, and almost 2,000 per day in the winter.
Slippery surfaces, poor light conditions, and more commuters opting to drive mean that emergency departments and minor injury units may see an increase in patients with injuries such as broken bones, sprained ankles, and wrist and head trauma.
Deaths Caused by Cold Weather
As the cold acts as a vasoconstrictor, the risk of heart attack in at-risk patients is increased in cold weather. Around two out of every five winter deaths is recorded as being due to heart attack. Severely at-risk patients should be advised to remain indoors in warm surroundings and all cardiac patients should be encouraged to wear sufficiently warm clothing and to avoid vigorous activity – such as snow shovelling – in cold conditions.
For every degree that the temperature drops below 5C there is a 10% increase in the number of elderly patients requiring medical assistance in the days following the onset of cold weather. Patients over 65 are eligible for both flu and pneumococcal vaccines to minimise their chance of developing these life-threatening illnesses.
It is not just patients that are at greater risk of falling ill or becoming injured. The healthcare professionals treating them are, naturally enough, also at risk. Ensuring that doctors’ vaccinations are up-to-date – including getting a seasonal flu vaccine as early as possible – will minimise their risk of infection.
If doctors do feel unwell then they should take steps to minimise the risk to their patients – especially if they work in areas such as paediatrics, geriatrics, or oncology – where patients are naturally at greater risk of developing complications from usually mild infections.