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Winter viruses – what’s out there right now?

November 28, 2022
Winter viruses – what’s out there right now?
November 28, 2022

Whether you’ve got kids or work in an office, you can probably tell when it’s winter just by the amount of coughing or sneezing going on around you. This year experts are concerned about not just a ‘twindemic’ of COVID and flu infecting people and filling up hospitals, but also the triple threat of a nasty kids’ virus called RSV, which is the main cause of children being hospitalised in this country and many others, too. 


It’s all thanks to this being the first winter we’ve had in a while without social distancing or masks. And we all know by now just how quickly viruses can spread when we huddle indoors together, as opposed to keeping apart and staying outdoors. 


But how much of a threat is COVID to us still and which other viruses should we be worrying about this winter? 

ZoomDoc Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenny Livingstone offers his guide to the seasonal viruses likely to infect your household this winter, including the key symptoms to look out for – and when to seek medical help.



With many of us vaccinated and with winter booster jabs also available, you may think COVID is nothing to worry about. National data (from October 2022) shows the number of people being admitted to hospital with the virus is decreasing, which is good news. But while rates are certainly down, one in 35 people are currently infected, which means COVID is very much still circulating. Make sure you’re vaccinated against it – book yours here – and are aware of the current symptoms to look out for so you can keep away from vulnerable people and stop it spreading.

COVID 19-vaccines are effective at protecting people from getting seriously ill, being hospitalised, and even dying.


COVID-19 symptoms: what are they?

COVID symptoms are similar to cold and flu symptoms but the most prominent symptoms have changed from the original ‘cough, fever and loss of smell (anosmia) that initially set the virus apart.


To help distinguish it from other viruses, the ZOE COVID study has closely monitored symptoms to give an idea of whether it’s likely to be COVID, or something else. Currently, the most common symptom depends on whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated.


If you’re vaccinated the top five most common symptoms are:


  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • blocked nose
  • persistent cough
  • headache


Earlier this year, the UK approved the roll-out of a dual vaccine for its seasonal booster vaccine programme, which is already underway.

If you’re not vaccinated, the most common symptoms include a fever:

  • headache
  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • fever
  • persistent cough


Although the NHS symptoms still list anosmia and other symptoms, including diarrhoea and sickness, these are not as common as the flu-like symptoms listed above. A sore throat and headache have been a strong sign ‘it’s COVID’ for some time now.


How to treat COVID-19

Having the vaccine is the best way to reduce your chances of being severely unwell with COVID-19. If you do experience symptoms, try to avoid others and stay at home if you feel unwell and have a fever. There’s no need to test for COVID-19 anymore unless you wish to.


When to see a doctor

If you’re worried about your symptoms or aren’t getting better, call your doctor and let them know you think it’s COVID before going to the surgery.


Read more about the COVID vaccine here



10 times more people are in hospital with flu (November 2022) than this time last year, proving that flu is much more serious than a cold. Influenza (nicknamed the flu) can lead to complications such as pneumonia and sepsis, which can be fatal. 


As with COVID, the flu vaccine is your best form of defence. It’s available free for kids and vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and the elderly, but is also available to buy privately if you’re not within one of those groups. Oh, and it’s perfectly safe – we’ve debunked any myths you’ve read about flu vaccines here.


Flu symptoms: what are they?

Unlike colds and other viruses, the flu tends to come on suddenly. Symptoms include:

  • a sudden high temperature
  • an aching body
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • a dry cough
  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • feeling sick and being sick


Unlike a cold, the flu makes you feel too unwell and exhausted to do anything. 


How to treat flu

If you think you have the flu, the best way to treat it is to get plenty of rest – stay in bed if you can – and take regular, age-appropriate doses of paracetamol or ibuprofen for fevers and aches and pains. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, too.



When to see a doctor

Again, if you’re worried about symptoms or are getting worse, not better, call your GP for further guidance.



A common cold can be unpleasant but it won’t stop you from carrying on working or getting out of bed. If you saw a £50 note on the floor you’d probably still pick it up with a cold, but with the flu you wouldn’t even have the strength to try. A heavy cold can make you feel pretty lousy but it shouldn’t leave you bed-ridden.

ZoomDoc’s Health and Wellbeing Top Tips: How to Get Rid of a Cold


Cold symptoms: what are they?

Colds tend to start more gradually than flu, either with a scratchy throat or tiredness. 


Common cold symptoms include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • a raised temperature
  • pressure in your ears and face
  • loss of taste and smell


How to treat a cold

Cold symptoms can be easily relieved with over-the-counter medicine like paracetamol or ibuprofen. Be careful not to take cough and cold remedies on top of these as some contain paracetamol so always read the label. Decongestant sprays can temporarily help with blocked noses. Get plenty of rest and drink water to stay hydrated. 

According to the NHS, ‘there’s still little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.’


When to see a doctor

If you have trouble breathing, a high fever or are worried about your symptoms, contact your doctor as it could be that the cold has spread to your chest or is actually not a cold but a virus that requires treatment.



Relatively unknown, RSV stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus. It’s a contagious virus that mostly causes mild, cold-like symptoms – but in babies and younger children it can cause bronchiolitis, a nasty chest infection. Current data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows that nearly one third of under-fives currently has RSV. It also says that over 60% of children will have it by their first birthday, and over 80% by the time they’re two, so make sure you’re aware of the symptoms if you have small children. 


RSV symptoms: what are they?

RSV symptoms can be easily mistaken for a cold as they include:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • cough
  • fever (sometimes)
  • earache
  • breathing difficulties



Virtually all children get an RSV infection by the time they are 2 years old. Most of the time RSV will cause a mild, cold-like illness


How to treat RSV

There’s no treatment for the virus as such but age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen will help with associated pain and fever. A new vaccine has recently been approved and could be rolled out to all babies if further studies are successful.

When to see a doctor

If your child is having any difficulty breathing or you have any concerns about them, always call a doctor.


Bronchiolitis is a common chest infection that affects large numbers of babies and young children. Particularly common in the winter, it’s caused by RSV and can be quite serious.

Bronchiolitis symptoms: what are they?

Bronchiolitis can start off similar to a cold with a blocked or runny nose, cough and fever. However, your baby might also develop these breathing-related symptoms such as:

  • breathing more quickly
  • finding it difficult to feed or eat
  • noisy breathing (wheezing)
  • becoming irritable


How to treat bronchiolitis

As with RSV, age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen will help with pain or fever – never aspirin for children under 16. Give them plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and keep them upright or propped up in bed if possible, to help with the cough.

When to see a doctor

As bronchiolitis affects babies and such young children, don’t hesitate to call 111 or 999 if your child has severe breathing difficulties (such as pausing between breaths, making grunting noises or their tummy sucking under their ribs or any loss of consciousness).

Call your doctor if your baby is under 3 months and has a temperature of 38C, or is older than 3 months and has a temperature of 39C or higher.

A child with bronchiolitis may then get other symptoms, such as: breathing more quickly. finding it difficult to feed or eat.

Symptoms should get better after 3-5 days although the cough can take a few weeks to go.



Another nasty virus affecting kids, croup is best known for its distinctive cough that often gets worse at night, causing breathing difficulties for children and a lot of concern for parents.


Croup symptoms: what are they?

Again, croup can start similar to a cold, with a runny or blocked nose, cough and fever. But then other specific symptoms set in, including:


  • a barking cough, that sounds like a seal 
  • a hoarse voice
  • difficulty breathing
  • a rasping sound when breathing in


How to treat croup

Aside from the usual age-appropriate paracetamol or ibuprofen, don’t be tempted to use steam inhalation to help. This is not advised for croup and can make things worse. Breathing cold air in from outside can help temporarily.


When to see the doctor

If your child is really unwell with croup or struggles to breathe they may need steroid medication to reduce inflammation and help with symptoms.

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If you’re feeling unwell and are struggling to see your GP at a time that suits you, ZoomDoc medical experts are available for appointments via our app. Perfect for peace of mind through the winter and beyond. 

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