The festive period is always a challenging one for professionals working in front-line NHS services, with the combination of the cold weather, over-exuberant party-goers and hectic schedules having a direct impact on the number of people using a system that is already feeling the strain.

Sometimes hospital visits are inevitable but members of the public can play their part in easing the burden on the NHS over the festive period by making informed choices.

People should never be afraid to call 999 if they think someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk. In situations that are not life-threatening but still require urgent medical help or advice there’s the NHS 111 hotline, which also works as a switchboard to connect you to other NHS services in your area.

If you are mobile and can seek out medical help then you may have several choices – not all medical emergencies require a visit to a hospital A&E department and many areas have walk-in centres, minor injuries or urgent care units that can see and treat patients quicker than hospitals, leaving A&E departments to deal with more serious cases.

If you think you could wait for help or treatment then you can make an appointment with your GP. Many practices have early morning slots set aside for ‘emergency’ appointments, which do not have to be booked in advance. There are also trained staff on hand at your local pharmacy for who can give you advice for many common minor illnesses, including diarrhoea, minor infections, headaches and sore throats.

Sometimes people experience symptoms that they are worried about but aren’t sure what to do next. If you have access to the internet, then one option for people living in England is to visit the NHS Choices website (or NHS Direct in Wales, NHS24 in Scotland and HSNI Online in Northern Ireland). NHS Choices allows people to access a huge range information and advice, including online tools to self-diagnose illnesses and search for local healthcare services.

Linda Millband, national practice lead of the clinical negligence team at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “There are lots of different options available to people needing to access healthcare services over the Christmas period and being aware of these options will not only ensure that you get the right advice or treatment but also means that our busy emergency departments are able to focus their resources on the patients that really need urgent help.”