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Image / Self / Health & Wellness

Ask the Doctor: ‘I’m worried about winter viruses — how can I keep visiting my elderly parents safely?’


By Sarah Gill
07th Nov 2023
Ask the Doctor: ‘I’m worried about winter viruses — how can I keep visiting my elderly parents safely?’

All your burning health questions answered by the professionals.

”I’m worried about bugs and viruses this winter. My elderly parents are in a nursing home and I don’t want to bring in germs that could potentially harm them or others in the home. Any tips, please. I really do want to continue visiting them but am terrified of bringing in bugs.”

Answer from Lenora Leonard, Head of Infection Prevention Control, Beacon Hospital

Visiting any person over the winter months may be worrying, especially if the person you are visiting is susceptible (for example very young children, those aged 65 years and older, persons who have certain medical conditions such a heart or lung disease or those who are receiving treatment such as chemotherapy or high-dose steroids).

Visiting has many benefits but understandably, you want to be sure you are not carrying any germs into vulnerable locations, such as nursing homes.

Winter months see an increase in viruses such as flu, COVID-19, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and the common cold. A key measure to protect others is to ensure you are vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 in order to prevent transmission of viruses, should you become sick yourself. Whilst the COVID vaccine does not prevent you from getting a COVID infection, it does reduce the effects of the illness, thereby limiting the risk of onward infection.

Carrying out hand hygiene on entering the nursing home is another measure in protecting residents and staff. Hand hygiene is the simplest and most cost effective control to limit the spread of infections. Hands can be washed with soap and water or you can use an alcohol based gel hand rub. Be sure to cover all surfaces of your hands – palms, back of hands and fingers.

As respiratory infections spread primarily through the air as small droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth, you need to trap these viruses to prevent spread. Good respiratory etiquette is important, including the use of tissues when you cough or sneeze (remembering to wash your hands after binning the tissue) or using your elbow to contain the viruses as best you can if no tissue is available. Also, if you have coughed or sneezed on an item such as a bedside table, clean it down to remove any viruses that might remain on the surface.

You should also remain at least 1 metre away from other residents to lower the risk of virus spread and if weather permits, you should consider meeting outdoors, as good ventilation helps dilute the risk of inhalation of viruses. Opening a window promotes indoor air quality and prevents stuffy rooms, where air circulation is poor.

If you are unwell yourself, it could be kinder to postpone your visit and use online tools such as facetime to chat to your parents while symptoms last. If the visit is necessary, wear a face mask covering the mouth and nose. Respiratory symptoms usually resolve in 2-7 days although a cough may persist longer.

In a nutshell, you should remember to always try to prevent spread of infection, to get vaccinated, to perform regular hand hygiene and cover your nose and mouth when sneezing.

Have a question for the professionals you’d like answered? Get in touch with [email protected] with the subject headline ‘Ask The Doctor’.