Your festive first-aid kit

Whether it's being burnt by the Christmas pudding or zapped by a fairy light, this time of year can be rife with injuries. Alice-Azania Jarvis asks the experts which supplies should be in your medicine cabinet
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The turkey has been ordered. The tree is in the sitting room. And you've finally crossed off every name on your Christmas card list. All that's left is to hang up your stocking and hope for a very merry yule.

Come the festive season, the last thing you need is to get ill. Alas, your immune system isn't aware that it's Christmas. In fact, with all the extra alcohol consumed, the consecutive late nights, the grand-scale gatherings in closed spaces you are, if anything, even more vulnerable to various ailments than at other times.

If you are having house guests, the problems multiply: it's all very well filling your fridge with snacks to satisfy their appetites' every whim, but what of your medicine cabinet? With doctors' surgeries serving shorter hours and shops and pharmacies closed for the holidays, getting hold of medical odds and ends can be tricky.

Ensuring that your home is well-stocked in advance means that, barring accident or emergency, no health quibble need cause a catastrophe.

For over-indulgence

Whether it's too much food or too much drink, we all tend to over-indulge come Christmas time. The results can range form a simple headache to heartburn, indigestion and diarrhoea. Happily, with just a few simple store cupboard staples, the effects of each can be mitigated.

First stop is the painkiller. It may sound rudimentary, but it's worth making sure you have plenty to hand so that, with shops shut on the 25th, you don't fall short. "Paracetamol is your best bet if you've got a bit of a hangover, as it won't make you queasy on an empty stomach," explains Dr Pixie McKenna, resident doctor on Channel 4's Embarrassing Illnesses and author of The Handbag Doctor. "And Ibuprofen can be used if you've pulled a muscle or twisted and ankle dancing a little too enthusiastically!"

Another essential is an antacid to settle the stomach. "Coffee, cigarettes and so on all exacerbate acid, so steer clear of those and be certain to have some Gaviscon or Ranitidine to hand," say Dr McKenna. Certain natural remedies can come in handy, too: Dr Rob Hicks, GP and author of Old Fashioned Remedies from Arsenic to Gin, recommends buying some peppermint tea and tomato juice in advance of the festive run-up. "Peppermint is very good for bloating, wind and relieving that overstuffed feeling. Tomato juice, meanwhile, delivers plenty of vitamin C, but is less irritating to the stomach than orange can be."

To treat a virus

An upset stomach isn't just a sign of too much food and drink. With the large groups of people that gather over Christmas, viruses can spread like wildfire. "I always encourage patients to let their stomach settle on its own – but it is still worth having some Imodium in the house," says GP Dr Anita Sturnham. "The most important thing, though, is to make sure that you stay hydrated and replace all the fluids you are losing."

So, if you are hosting a crowd, stock up on oral rehydration drinks and sachets before your visitors arrive.

Once one guest has come down with a bug, there are certain measures you can take to minimise the virus's spread. "Be sure to have plenty of anti-bacterial handwash for people to use regularly," says Dr McKenna on this. "Vomiting bugs and diarrhoea can linger in bathrooms for up to seven days, so you really want to do everything you can to prevent them spreading."

To combat that cold

We all know that there's no such thing as a cure for a cold – but that doesn't mean you need to let catching one ruin your Christmas. Ensuring you have some painkillers and a good decongestant, such as Sudafed, in your medicine cabinet means that you will, at least, be able to ward off the worst symptoms. It's worth keeping some lozenges, too, for a sore throat and some pholcodine for a dry cough. "This is really the only over-the-counter cough medicine that we find makes a difference," explains Dr Sturnham. "So stock up in advance."

When feeling under the weather, vitamin C supplements and echinacea can come in handy, too. "If you get the first warning signs of a cold, start dosing with those," advises Dr Hicks.

And if others around you start falling ill, keep your distance: "Make sure to get plenty of rest, plenty of fruit and vegetables and stay as active as possible."

If you have elderly visitors

"It's a really good idea to ask what medications elderly guests are already on," says Dr McKenna. "Get their chemist to print off a list of prescriptions – that way, if you need to call your doctor or NHS Direct, you'll have all the necessary information to hand." Just as crucial is that visitors bring enough of their meds with them: "Don't leave the renewing of prescriptions until the last minute, when there is a mad rush at the doctors.

"The snowfall we have been having could easily delay delivery so the earlier you pick up your prescriptions, the better."

Like diarrhoea, constipation is a common complaint at this time of year, particularly among older people, so Dr Sturnham suggests storing a gentle laxative such as Senokot: "It can make all the difference if you are feeling uncomfortable." Finally, keep a stock of bandages to hand in case of any unfortunate falls.

If you have children coming

First of all, be sure to have plenty of plasters and antiseptic if you're expecting underage guests.

"What with all the excitement, the new toys and so on, children are bound to hurt themselves somehow," says Dr Sturnham.

Kids, of course, are just as liable to fall victim to coughs, colds and viruses as the rest of us – so be sure you have the means to handle them.

Dr Sturnham advises hosts to keep a thermometer to monitor children's progress if they fall ill – and don't be without a bottle of Calpol paracetamol syrup.

"It's good stuff," says Dr McKenna. "If you have a child with a temperature, the key thing you will want to do is to get it down." You can also buy ibuprofen suitable for children.

To get a good night's sleep

Insomnia is rife over Christmas, the most common cause being our tendency to eat big, boozy meals, frequently much later at night than we would otherwise. "If you're going to go to bed having just stuffed your face, you'll sleep badly," concurs Dr McKenna. "So try and avoid eating too much, too late – and be sure to get some exercise in the daytime."

If those tactics don't work, keeping a few essentials might.

"Things like lavender oils, Kalms and the various alternative remedies you can get are helpful," says Dr McKenna. Earplugs, too, can be useful if the source of your insomnia is less your over-full stomach and more the sound of your neighbours' Christmas party. Failing all else, most pharmacies sell over-the-counter sleep aids such as Nytol. "They are all quite good," agrees Dr Sturnham. "But they are just a temporary fix."

And finally...

Stock up on some blister pads to nurse injured feet. "Blister pads, heel pads, whatever – this is the time for them," says Dr McKenna. "We all put on our new towering shoes for Christmas Day and at the end of it our feet are paying the price."

Most bathroom cabinets hold some kind of moisturising cream – but at Christmas, you might want to buy a bigger bottle. "Central heating dries out your skin which can become itchy and irritated," says Dr Hicks on this. "Added to that you have the cold windy weather outside, which can cause chaffing."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Christmas is peak time for cystitis infections. "The combination of caffeine, alcohol and the possibility of post-party romance means that we see a big Christmas spike in infections," says Dr McKenna. Antibiotics should be prescribed in severe cases, but for mild cystitis, a well-stocked medicine cabinet will come in handy. Painkillers can be used to ease discomfort – and Dr Hicks recommends keeping some bicarbonate of soda, too, which, in half-teaspoon doses, can be dissolved in water to aid recovery.

To stave off skin irritations, get hold of an anti-histamine. "You would be amazed by how many people come down with a rash over Christmas," says Dr McKenna.

"Whether it is caused by the fake-tan that they have put on for Christmas Day, or a new beauty product that has been given as a gift, it can be very uncomfortable."

Lastly, make a list of essential phone numbers and keep it with your medicines. Note down your guests' family doctors –particularly if they are already on regular medication – and keep NHS Direct's details accessible.