“As predicted, numbers of viral infections are soaring. While it’s not ideal for overstretched GP practices and hospitals, or those suffering, it’s to be expected at this time of year”, says ZoomDoc Chief Medical Officer and GP, Dr Kenny Livingstone.
‘As the weather turns colder and we spend more time indoors for festive events and end-of-year celebrations, it’s easier for viruses such as respiratory tract infections (colds), flu and Covid to spread,’ he says.
Latest figures from NHS England (December 2023) showed ‘an average of 234 people were in hospital with flu every day last week, up 53% on the week before.’
It also revealed norovirus cases were rising ‘with hospital cases up 15% on the previous week to an average 406 people each day – a 28% increase on the same week last year’.
And RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) a common respiratory virus was also increasing in cases, with ‘‘an average of 146 children in hospital each day with the virus, up 11% on both last year and the previous week (131)’.
As for Covid, latest NHS figures show that ‘around 4.2% of people in England and Scotland were estimated to have the virus as of December 13 – the equivalent of one in 24 people.’
But what’s also concerning is the number of patients who don’t need hospital treatment, but whose symptoms are lingering for months, rather than days or weeks.
‘We’re seeing a lot of patients with long-lasting, debilitating symptoms from winter viruses. Rather than getting over a cold in a few days, they’re still feeling unwell or coughing for several weeks after symptoms first appeared,’ says Dr Kenny.
And while they may not require a trip to A&E, they do require time off work, which can cause mental and financial stress as well.
‘We’ve noticed an increasing amount of people with prolonged viral symptoms requesting sick notes, which are required for an illness that stretches over seven calendar days.’
If you’re struggling with one of this winter’s viruses, read on to find out how to get medical help, support and sick notes, should you need one.
Colds, Covid and the flu: which one do you have?
The truth is any of the viruses flying around right now can make you feel pretty unwell. Covid is possible to identify with an at-home lateral test you can pick up from any pharmacy.
The main difference between a cold and the flu is that the flu comes on suddenly and really affects your energy levels.
‘There’s no doubt a bad cold can make you feel ill but imagine if you saw a £50 note on the floor. With a bad cold you’d still reach down to pick it up whereas with the flu you wouldn’t have the energy or inclination to,’ says Dr Kenny.
Norovirus is unpleasant, causing diarrhoea and vomiting, but usually gets better after 48 hours or so.
RSV mostly affects young children, particularly those under the age of 2.
Most winter viruses will get better with rest so the best thing to do is just that.
‘Keeping warm and hydrated is also key – and try to stay away from anyone who’s particularly vulnerable such as elderly parents or grandparents, or anyone with a weak immune system to avoid spreading the virus to them,’ says Dr Kenny.
Winter viruses: when to seek medical help
When you feel really unwell it can be tempting to want a prescription for antibiotics. However, GPs won’t give out antibiotics for colds because they’re only effective against bacterial infections, not viruses.
However, the NHS does recommend seeing a doctor if:
- your symptoms do not improve after 3 weeks
- your symptoms get suddenly worse
- your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
- you’re concerned about your child’s symptoms
- you’re feeling short of breath or develop chest pain
- you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you’re having chemotherapy
How to get a sick note for winter viruses
If you’re too ill to work you may need a sick note or ‘Fit note’ as it’s also called for your HR department or employer.
You’ll need one if you’ve been off work unwell (or injured) for more than seven calendar days. According to NHS guidance you should include weekend days or the days you don’t usually work in that number.
So how do you get one?
Although many GP practices will provide a medical letter for you, they’ll most likely require an appointment and a second trip back to collect it at a later date.
However, ZoomDoc offers a same-day online medical letters service enabling you to get a sick note or other letter or certificate the same day, no appointment needed, for just £45.
‘This saves time, stress and frees up doctor’s appointments for people who really need them,’ says Dr Kenny.
Alternatively if your symptoms are keeping you off college or university and you require proof of illness for your tutor or office administration purposes you can buy a same-day university, college and school sickness letter, also for £45.
Read more about ZoomDoc’s medical letters to know about this year.