Aotearoa is facing an onslaught of winter illness right now, with spiking Covid numbers, widespread influenza, and respiratory viruses like RSV and adenovirus in the community. Re: spoke with NZ’s head GP to find out how we can handle it.
Medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners Dr Bryan Betty says New Zealand’s medical system is “the most stressed I’ve seen” with the current wave of winter viruses.
“I’m getting reports from all over the country that clinics are at capacity and struggling with what's going on.”
This is the first winter where Covid has been widespread in the community, Betty said, and our immunity to viruses like the flu has been lowered because we haven’t encountered them for two years with the border closed.
The result is large numbers of people are getting sick, he said, and are even getting these different illnesses back-to-back in some cases.
Here is his best advice for avoiding illness, or looking after yourself and recovering properly if you do become unwell.
Winter viruses are airborne, Betty said, so the way we dealt with Covid will also keep you safer from these other illnesses.
Like Covid, Betty said the only thing that can really protect you is immunisation. He encouraged everyone to make sure they are up to date with Covid boosters, and also get the flu jab from their GP.
- Mask up
Masks reduce the spread of flu as well as Covid, Betty said. So, now is not a good time to relax your mask-wearing habits.
- Stay home
This is more about not making others sick, but Betty said if you start to feel any of the symptoms of Covid or the flu, it is really important you stay home. These include headache, sore throat, cough, runny nose, muscle ache, and high temperature.
There are mandates that anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 must stay home for seven days, but Betty said you should also treat the flu the same way.
Symptoms may last longer than seven days, he said, but 5-7 days after your symptoms first emerge is the period where you can spread it to others.
Some people might feel pressure to return to work too soon with the flu, Betty said. But employers should look at the bigger picture and see that employees coming back to work too soon are going to spread the virus and cause a larger disruption, he said.
While there are a lot of people sick right now, for most, these illnesses will be mild to moderate and not require going to the doctor.
A big way to ease pressure on the medical system is by not going to the doctor or hospital unnecessarily when dealing with these illnesses, Betty said.
“Most viral illnesses, if it's mild to moderate, you can manage perfectly safely at home.
“It’s when you can't keep fluids down, temperature is severe and out of control, you experience shortness of breath, or when children stop drinking and are drowsy - those are the situations [where] you should seek medical help.”
Betty said the people who are most likely to need help, and the people we want to keep the system freed up for, are people over 65 and those with preexisting medical conditions that make these illnesses riskier - such as diabetes or respiratory conditions.
For these groups, there are also antiviral medications that if taken in the first five days can make symptoms more manageable.
However, these medications are reserved for vulnerable people, so for most people, getting through these illnesses will be about managing symptoms.
You’ve likely heard it a hundred times before, Betty said, but the best treatments are rest, keeping hydrated, and taking regular paracetamol or ibuprofen.
There are also a range of home remedies which people can try, Betty said, like drinking lemon and honey, gargling with salt, and taking a steamy shower or inhaling the steam from a bowl of hot water.
Covid-19 can have long-term impacts on people’s health, commonly called Long Covid, Betty said.
It is normal for symptoms of both Covid and the flu to last weeks, or even months, after getting sick, he said.
It is when these symptoms persist after three months that it is considered Long Covid, and is something researchers are still working to understand and treat.
Betty said the medical system is going to have to learn to recognise and treat those dealing with Long Covid, likely with support from a wide range of experts - from GPs to dieticians and occupational therapists.
You can find our guide to Long Covid symptoms and some of the latest research into avoiding and dealing with it here.
Betty said the majority of people will recover naturally from these viruses, however, some general rules for doing so include:
- Good nutrition: Betty recommended people recovering focus their diet on basics like fruits and vegetables, and a bit of protein, while avoiding foods high in sugar or salt.
- Hydration: Drink lots and often, Betty said.
- Manage fatigue: Rest if you’re feeling tired, he said, and don’t rush back into exercise.
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