Doctors have said coughs are lasting a long time this winter and it might be due to people picking up one infection after another.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors have noticed the current round of respiratory infections are taking longer than usual to clear, but added most people will recover without any medical attention.
She said lockdowns during the pandemic may have reduced the public’s “resistance to infections” – but admitted it is “not clear” why so many coughs and colds linger for so long.
Research shows that rates of lower and upper respiratory tract infections are well above the average usually seen so far in winter, she added.
This is supported by weekly data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which has found high rates of flu and other respiratory viruses.
This month, the UKHSA warned adults to stay at home if they feel unwell – or wear face coverings when going outside to minimise spreading infections.
Prof Hawthorne said: “It’s not clear why some of the current respiratory infections going around do seem to be lasting longer than usual – this has been noticed by doctors as well as patients, but we are not entirely sure why this is happening.
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“Most of the public have been socially isolated during the last two winters and this appears to have reduced their resistance to infections – this seems to make it more likely they will pick up infections than in previous years.
“So, in some cases, it may be a matter of picking up one infection after another. They are all different and getting over one type of infection does not give immunity against another one.
“We’d encourage patients to do what they can to keep themselves well this winter, including practising good public hygiene such as regular handwashing, or using hand gels if that isn’t possible, and throwing tissues away once they’ve been used.”
‘Antibiotics for viral infections will not help’
Prof Hawthorne also recommended regular paracetamol for any temperature, sore throat or earache, keeping warm, getting plenty of rest, and drinking lots of fluids.
“We’d encourage patients to understand that giving antibiotics for viral infections will not help, as they only help with bacterial infections,” she said.
“Most upper respiratory tract infections are due to viruses.
“If a cough is particularly persistent, or bringing up discoloured phlegm, has severely worsened with shortness of breath, or if a patient is experiencing chest pain or losing weight for no reason, they should seek a medical opinion.”
Prof Hawthorne said GPs are seeing a huge increase in demand for appointments, including from people whose physical and mental health is suffering as a result of the rising cost of living.
“It goes without saying that if patients are struggling to eat healthily or heat their homes or are living in damp conditions, then this will have an impact on their health – and the added stress of struggling financially will undoubtedly take its toll on people’s mental health,” she said.
She also urged the government to “address the severe and chronic workforce shortages in general practice” alongside cutting red tape, so GPs can spend more time with their patients.