5 Common Winter Ailments

Protect yourself against the flu and other illnesses

A mother and daughter fight cold and flu symptoms with hot tea and rest.

Protect yourself against the flu and other illnesses

Along with cooler weather, the winter months usher in a slew of illnesses that can target the whole family.

Make an appointment to see your primary care physician if you feel you're coming down with something that warrants medical attention. If your doctor is not available and you don't want to wait, check for the nearest walk-in clinic that provides same-day services for minor illnesses, such as Scripps HealthExpress, which has locations throughout San Diego County.

If you feel unusually fatigued, congested or nauseated, you may be experiencing one of these five common winter conditions:

Gastroenteritis and norovirus

Gastroenteritis and norovirus are acute stomach illnesses characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. They are highly contagious, so stay home if you have either one.

Gastroenteritis has several causes, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

The main sources of transmission for norovirus are person-to-person contact and contaminated foods. There is no specific medication to treat norovirus, but make sure to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, and rest will help most people feel better as one recovers.

“In most cases, you can return to work or school if you have been symptom-free for 48 hours,” says Rio Dickens-Celestin, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “If you are still feeling weak after two days, don’t push it because your immune system will be down, and you can easily pick up another bug.”

Common cold

The ubiquitous “cold” peaks during the winter months. A respiratory illness, the common cold is characterized by a stuffy and runny nose, a sore throat and coughing.

A cold can take up to a day or two to develop and lasts anywhere from seven to 10 days. Over-the-counter medications and nasal sprays can help alleviate symptoms.


An inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the air passages between the mouth, nose and lungs, acute bronchitis is often more prevalent during the winter months.

The most common symptom of bronchitis is a hacking cough that may bring up mucus after a few days. Over-the-counter medications, cough drops, fluids and rest will help most people get better in seven to 10 days, although the cough can last for a few weeks.

The flu

Commonly known as the flu, the influenza season begins in the fall and stretches into May.

A respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat and lungs, the flu is quite contagious, spreading easily from person to person through coughs, sneezing and even general talking.

“The best prevention against the flu is vaccination, and it is never too late in the season to get it,” says Dr. Dickens-Celestin.

Symptoms of the flu include a fever, cough, chest congestion, muscle aches, chills and fatigue, often developing rapidly within a few hours. Although vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes be seen in children, they are not common symptoms of the flu in adults.

“For generally healthy individuals, rest and self-care will help them get better within five to seven days,” says Dr. Dickens-Celestin. “However, if someone has a high risk of flu-related complications, there’s a greater probability that the flu could lead to other illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

Adults over 65, children two years and younger, and those with chronic conditions are more susceptible to complications of the flu.”

Check with your doctor if you are concerned that you or someone in your family is at high risk. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce the severity and length of symptoms.


Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by a virus or bacteria that can range from mild to severe, depending on factors such as age, overall health and the type of germ causing the infection.

Symptoms of pneumonia include cough, fever, chest pain, fatigue, fever, heavy sweating and shortness of breath. The two groups at highest risk for developing life-threatening pneumonia are children two years and younger and those 65 and older.

“Your physician can advise you about the pneumonia vaccine,” says Dr. Dickens-Celestin. “Most healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 64 probably don’t need it, but your doctor will be able to determine what is best for you.”

Normal recovery time for both bacterial and viral pneumonia is one to two weeks, although fatigue can last a month or more. If you are diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, while viral pneumonia can be treated with over-the-counter remedies.

A graphic shows the symptoms of five common winter illnesses.

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