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Common winter illnesses

In partnership with Dr Hamish Black

Why is it that we seem to only get sick in winter?

Young dad with brown hair and a beard checking the lymph of his 4-year-old son who is at home sick.
Young dad with brown hair and a beard checking the lymph of his 4-year-old son who is at home sick.

Do you steel yourself ahead of the slew of bugs and viruses that seem to come with the colder months?

While there are some illnesses that occur more during winter, the most common conditions that make us unwell actually occur all year around, says Dr Hamish Black, nib Group Medical Adviser. These include viral upper respiratory tract infections, hypertension (high blood pressure), depression, diabetes, arthritis, headaches and skin cancers.

“There are, however, some conditions that occur more often in winter than in other months,” he notes. These include colds, flus and other respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, croup and bronchitis. 

There is one condition that only occurs in the winter months, says Hamish. That is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression that usually develops during autumn and winter as the weather changes. 

Why does the flu season occur in winter? 

Flu season in Australia typically runs from April to October.

“The reason people get more sick in winter is because we spend more time inside exposed to circulated air and with close contact with others,” Hamish explains. “It’s not because the weather is cold.” 

Children are more likely to get sick because they have lower immunity through less exposure to infections.

Sometimes people get confused between colds and flu, but Hamish says that flu is generally worse than a cold. You’ll likely get higher fevers and for a longer time, more aches and pains and you’ll have less energy.

Whereas with a cold, Hamish says the main symptoms are a runny nose and congestion. 

A woman in her 30s sick in bed looking at her laptop with her puppy

How do I know if I need antibiotics or to see a GP? 

“For some people, for example those with chronic respiratory illness or those with impaired immunity, they should generally have antibiotics whenever they have a cold or flu,” Hamish says.

Otherwise, antibiotics aren’t usually needed unless there’s been a complication of the viral infection, such as perforated ear drum or an abscess has developed. Your GP may take a swab to test if any bacteria is present. 

“You should also see your GP if the symptoms persist beyond 10 days, are severe or you have significant underlying illnesses,” Hamish advises. 

Winter allergies 

While springtime allergies are usually related to pollen, winter allergies arise from spending more time indoors and through exposure to dust mites, mould, pet dander and cockroach droppings. 

“The symptoms are generally sneezing, itching, rashes and congestion,” Hamish notes. “Of course, some people can have severe and even life-threatening allergic reactions with shortness of breath and swelling of the airway.” 

How can I manage and minimise my risk of winter ills and colds? 

Hamish recommends the following tips to make yourself more comfortable if you do get sick from common illnesses: 

  • take regular pain relief, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen

  • stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water 

  • listen carefully to your body and rest when it tells you to, and

  • gradually rebuild your exercise regimen. 

When it comes to minimising your risk of catching (and spreading) winter illnesses, Hamish notes that the COVID-19 pandemic proved that social distancing led to a “steep decline” in viruses, such as the common cold.

“The disadvantage of that strategy, though, is that we also gradually lose our immunity to these viruses – as well as the health benefits of socialisation.” 

Hamish says other practical ways to reduce your risk of getting sick or spreading any illnesses you have, include to: 

  • wash your hands regularly

  • cough and sneeze into your elbows (instead of into your hands) 

  • wear a mask when you’re unwell (or even better, stay away from others), and 

  • get vaccinated every year for the flu (and for COVID if it becomes available annually). 

Rain, hail or shine, Hamish says it’s important to maintain your health all year around.

“Get three hours of exercise a week, keep a healthy diet, don’t smoke, don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol and stay well hydrated,” he says. “Look after your mental health – including making sure to get enough sleep.” 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

In partnership with

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.