The thought of a being struck down with a critical illness is a difficult to come to terms with, but how prepared are we should the worst happen?

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New research suggests a third of us don’t know how we’d cope, with the biggest worry being paying the bills.

A survey by Nationwide shows that just 14% of people have critical illness cover.

That’s despite 57% of people having had experience of critical illnesses such as cancer, heart attack or stroke – either themselves or through family or close friends.

Nearly half of us would have to rely on our savings if we were unable to work - Image by Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com

Almost one in five people (19%) are willing to take the risk of getting ill, according to the Nationwide Protection poll, which surveyed 2,000 UK adults.

16% say they have sufficient finances to cover a period of sickness and 14% don’t worry about things until they happen.

Just over one in 10 (12%) believe they are too young to need critical illness cover while 8% simply don’t think they will become critically ill.

Nationwide’s poll showed that only 31% could afford to support themselves if a critical illness left them unable to work. A further 36% said they wouldn’t know how to cope financially.

Nearly half of those surveyed (48%) would have to rely on their savings – although Nationwide customer data shows the average person has only £7,707 saved.

The biggest financial concerns around critical illness are not being able to pay the bills (45%) and getting into debt (34%).

A third of people (30%) would worry about being able to pay the mortgage. Others would worry about the cost of going on holiday (10%) and Christmas and birthdays (6%).

Nationwide offers advice to customers diagnosed with a critical illness - Image by goodluz/Shutterstock.com

Nationwide said it provides a range of services for customers who have been diagnosed with a critical illness including specialist advice for those living with cancer.

Rob Angus, Nationwide’s strategy and propositions director for financial planning, protection and investments, said: “A critical illness diagnosis can be devastating and stressful for the whole family.

“But if you’re unable to work or are forced to give up work, then the worry of how you will pay the bills can add to the pressure.”

He said the approach of throwing caution to the wind leaves many people unprepared to cope with day-to-day bills as well as any additional costs they may face.

“Many expect to rely on their savings, but the research shows this is only really an option for older people who have managed to build up a sizable nest egg over a number of years.

“Having a critical illness policy in place takes away the worry of how you will cope financially and instead focus all your attention on your recovery.”