Festive first aid
Nothing can interrupt a family Christmas faster than a poorly patient, says Zoe McDonald. So here's our mummy guide to dealing with seasonal health woes.
This Christmas, to spare you from hours driving around looking for an out-of-hours pharmacy, or trying to track down an on-call GP, we’ve asked health experts to give their essential tips on looking after the wellbeing of your whole family. A smidge of savvy forward planning and some emergency expertise can save you a lot of stress if you find yourself facing a bout of sickness, or even something more serious.
Stay hydrated: ‘Dehydration is the biggest danger in small children with vomiting bugs,’ says Dr Dawn Harper of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies and author of Dr Dawn’s Guides to Health. In very little ones, she says, ‘Check for wet nappies – easier said than done if they have a runny tummy, so check often – and look out for a sunken soft spot on the head of little babies, or a slow “ping back” when you pinch the skin of toddlers and older children.’ Even if a child seems unable to keep anything down, says Dawn, you should keep offering fluids: ‘They hardly ever vomit the whole lot back up.’ But don’t give just water, as this can dilute the minerals in their body. Rehydration sachets such as Dioralyte are worth keeping in your medicine cabinet; check with your pharmacist which is best for you.
Go OCD on home hygiene: Studies show that to kill resilient bugs such as those that cause norovirus, you must scrub hands and nails vigorously for 30 seconds with soap and hot water. This is more effective than a squirt of antibacterial gel. ‘It’s a pain to enforce but it is so worth it,’ says Dr Philippa Kaye, GP and author of The First Five Years. Make this easy for everyone by keeping soap by every sink in the house. Use a solution of bleach and water to disinfect doorknobs, light switches and any other surfaces that are touched a lot.
When to seek help: ‘If a young child continues vomiting for longer than 24 hours, you should see a doctor,’ says Boots pharmacist Tom Kallis. The same goes for adults who’ve not been able to keep any fluids down and have not had a wee in over six hours.
Give water: We all think about upping veg and fibre in the diet as the obvious way to combat constipation, especially over Christmas when sweets and crisps abound, but checking that little ones (and adults TOO) have enough to drink is just as important.
Get them moving: This is a good way to kick-start sluggish digestion in small children. Sitting on the sofa watching TV will make it worse: ‘The more they move, the more that gravity will “shake it down”,’ says Philippa. For immediate relief, a gentle tummy massage can really help. Studies have shown that regular abdominal massage increases ease and frequency of bowel movements. Move hands clockwise, circling below the belly button, using an unscented oil – but don’t continue if they’re not enjoying it.
When to seek help: If your child is in agony with an impacted stool, and extra fluids, massage and movement haven’t helped, a doctor should be able to prescribe a suppository to get things moving. In children over a year old, says Tom, ‘A pharmacist can provide a gentle laxative without a prescription.’
Take a photo: At Christmas, when the home may be full of fresh and dried flowers and plants, as well as foodie treats, allergens can be all over the place. If someone develops a reaction such as redness, itching or a rash, before you do anything else Philippa suggests taking a picture on your phone to show to the doctor later. ‘This is always a good idea as the symptoms may well have disappeared by the time you get medical attention,’ she says.
Give antihistamine: ‘I think parents should have a liquid antihistamine such as chlorphenamine (Piriton) in their first aid kit,’ says Tom. ‘It buys you time to get to a doctor which may be invaluable at a time of year when the emergency services are stretched.’
When to seek help: If a baby develops a red, blotchy rash, itchiness or swelling on their hands, feet or face, possibly with slowed breathing too, call 999 for an ambulance as they may be having a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. Similarly, if an adult develops swelling of the eyes, lips, mouth, throat or tongue, get immediate help.
Forget the frozen peas: Philippa says that cool (but not too cold) water is your best bet, and that acting quickly is key. ‘It’s important that it’s running water, to clean
the burn. Your skin is the first line of defence against infection and a burn breaches that, so if you’ve got grime or oil from the inside of your oven, say, sitting on top of that, it could cause an infection.’ Keep a burn under running water for at least ten minutes – even after it may have stopped hurting.
Cover it in cling film: Yes, really. Once you’ve taken the heat out of the burn, says Tracey Taylor, British Red Cross first aid educator, ‘Dry the burnt skin gently and cover the area in cling film. Keep it on in the case of a severe burn or a child’s burn, until you can see a pharmacist or doctor. Otherwise, keep it on until the skin has begun to heal.’ The idea is just to protect the skin from infection – so don’t wrap it tightly. And don’t put anything on it until it starts to heal – putting butter on a burn is an old wives’ tale.
When to seek help: If the burn is larger than a 50p piece, or if a child has any burn at all, it should be checked out by a doctor.
Get the jab: GP and writer Dr Toni Hazell recommends getting the flu jab, which you can pay for if you’re not in an at-risk group. ‘There are lots of myths about the flu vaccine, and number one is that it can give you flu,’ she says. ‘But the vaccine is a dead one, so this is a misunderstanding.’ As for your little ones, at the moment children aged two to four, and those in school years one and two, are routinely offered the vaccine as a nasal spray.
Mask the symptoms: ‘Some patients believe it’s best to allow the body to fight an infection,’ says Dr Harper, ‘but it’s a myth that this helps the healing process. In the case of something like flu, the right medication can bring considerable relief from symptoms.’ Paracetamol, she says, is hugely underrated and is a super-effective painkiller and anti-fever medication. Ibuprofen is also useful.
When to seek help: Dawn says, ‘You should see a doctor if your symptoms last longer than two weeks, if you’re coughing up blood or yellow or green sputum, if you have difficulty breathing, if you have pain in your chest or become confused.’
Keep flavours simple: Overdoing booze and rich or spicy food makes heartburn more likely, as does eating large portions. So go easy on the cream, pâté, puddings and sauces, but have lots of veg. ‘Vegetables won’t sit in your gut like fatty food, they are easy to digest and will speed up the transit time of your meal,’ says Charles.
Raise the bed: Charles also suggests you don’t go to bed on a full stomach: ‘Leave two hours after eating before turning in,’ he says. ‘Tilting your bed slightly can be a big help, as lying flat can encourage stomach contents to rise up.’ Ew. ‘Rather than piling up the pillows, which may mean you sleep badly,’ he adds, ‘put something under the bed base to tilt the whole mattress slightly.’ Gaviscon should ease adults’ discomfort, and infant Gaviscon is available on prescription for babies with reflux.
When to seek help: People can often mistake the symptoms of a heart attack for indigestion. If in any doubt, call 999.
British Red Cross first aid apps are available free from the App Store, or see redcross.org.uk