The HSE is reminding people of the importance of looking after themselves over the Christmas and New Year period, and to plan in advance for any anticipated medical needs over the coming weeks.
"We want to remind people to be prepared this Christmas by renewing prescriptions early and to book a GP appointment for routine visits during normal clinic hours. As the Christmas holidays are the busiest times for the GP out-of-hours service, we are asking people to help us to protect this service for those with urgent medical problems," commented Dr Mel Bates, medical director of Northdoc, a GP out-of-hours service in north Dublin.
He reminded people that GPs will be working over Christmas and they should be the first port of call for patients on normal working days.
"Traditionally, St Stephen's Day is the busiest day of the year for our DDoc service. The following days are always extremely busy too, leading up to and into the New Year. It is important that we protect the out-of-hours service for those patients who need urgent GP care at this time of year.
"I would urge everyone to take the time to prepare in advance, to use the GP out-of-hours services for urgent medical problems only and to take measures to stay well this Christmas and New Year," Dr Bates said.
The HSE is advising people to plan ahead by:
-Booking an appointment with your own GP surgery before Christmas for routine matters
- If you have a medical condition that requires medication, ensure you order sufficient supplies to cover the whole holiday and any trips away you have planned
-Stock up on home medicine cabinet essentials suitable for all the family, such as painkillers, indigestion remedies, cough and cold medicines, plasters, antiseptic cream and a thermometer
-For common ailments like coughs, colds and sore throats, you'll find straightforward advice on www.undertheweather.ie
-If you need to use the GP out-of-hours service, phone first so that a nurse can triage your care and provide you with an appointment time. Please remember the GP out-of-hours service works on an appointment basis so you will need to phone ahead.
The HSE is also reminding people that outbreaks of flu and winter vomiting bugs tend to be much more common at this time of year.
According to Dr Vida Hamilton, the HSE's national clinical advisor for acute hospitals, people who are fit and healthy can usually weather these infections with bed rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter symptom relief.
However, she noted that these infections are very contagious, so infected people need to be careful about who they come into contact with. Unfortunately, infected people are contagious even before they become symptomatic, so it can be very difficult to prevent spreading illness to loved ones who are not so healthy and fit.
"Prevention is much better than cure. Even if you are in great health yourself, fit and healthy people have different abilities to fight off infection due to their different genetics. You don't necessarily know how good your infection fighting genes are until you get a really bad infection," Dr Hamilton pointed out.
She insisted that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection.
"The current flu vaccine is a good match for the circulating flu viruses, which is good news. Unfortunately there is no effective vaccine for winter vomiting bug so we are back to good infection control practice. There is also a vaccine recommended for people with chronic disease called the pneumococcal vaccine. It protects vulnerable people from bad pneumonia and meningitis caused by this bug," she explained.
Dr Hamilton noted that more than 60% of people over the age of 50 are living with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and heart failure. They, along with people living with cancer and other conditions that suppress the immune system, are more vulnerable to infection and need to protect themselves by getting vaccinated against flu and pneumonia.
"Handwashing is vitally important as viruses can live for days on surfaces and our hands. If we then bring the bugs to our faces, this can lead to winter vomiting or flu. Every time you wash your hands you protect yourself," Dr Hamilton added.