How to Flu-Proof Your Home... Car... Office Susan Rehm, MD
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
In the past year, we have repeatedly heard about the threat of an avian flu pandemic, but most people don't think about the reality here and now of the "regular" flu. Each year, tens of millions of Americans contract influenza. For most, it just makes for an unpleasant week, but 200,000 flu sufferers each year end up in the hospital -- and 36,000 Americans die from flu complications. Most outbreaks occur between October and May, with the peak season between late December and early March. To flu-proof your home, car and office...
Get the vaccine. You know this already, but it bears repeating because as many as two-thirds of those who should get the flu shot, don't -- even though it is the single best way to flu-proof your life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots, particularly for anyone over age 50, because potentially fatal flu complications are more common as you get older. Flu shots also are strongly recommended for children from six months to five years... and for anyone with a chronic lung, kidney or heart condition, diabetes or a weakened immune system.
Wash hands properly and often. Hand washings must be vigorous and last at least 20 seconds to be effective. Simply lathering up and quickly rinsing aren't enough. It's the act of physically scrubbing one hand against the other with soap that dislodges flu viruses.
If you're not near a sink, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be equally effective. Just don't apply so much of the sanitizer that your hands remain moist for very long. Hands become sterile only when the alcohol evaporates, leaving them dry.
Learn the difference between a cold and the flu. People often mistake bad colds for the flu. The onset of the flu is sudden, and includes fever, severe muscle aches and fatigue, while colds tend to take hold gradually and often are not accompanied by severe aches or a fever. When flu includes a cough, it tends to be a dry cough.
Important: The reason it is crucial to know the difference between the cold and the flu is that a prescription antiviral, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, can help reduce the severity of the flu -- but only if taken within 48 hours of initial infection. Call your doctor immediately if you think you have the flu.
Kids, grandkids and your spouse are the ones most likely to bring the flu virus into your home. What to do...
Avoid sharing silverware, glasses and kisses with a family member who is not feeling well.
Use disinfectant wipes to clean items you commonly touch, such as doorknobs, drawer handles, kitchen appliances, phones and remote controls.
Ask your doctor for a prophylactic dose of an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, if someone in your house has the flu. These prescription drugs can reduce the odds that you will come down with it.
Postpone visits from young children if they are not feeling well or if the flu has been active at their school. When a visit from young children is unavoidable, wash your hands thoroughly after touching the children or objects they have recently handled. After the kids leave, use disinfectant wipes to clean items they touched.
When you share a car ride with someone, you also share the air in a small, enclosed space. If one of you has the flu at the beginning of even a short trip, the odds are good that both of you will by the end. What to do...
Encourage sick car pool members to stay home. If you find out that you shared a car in the past 48 hours with someone who has the flu, ask your doctor for Tamiflu or Relenza.
If you let someone else drive your car -- even a parking attendant -- use alcohol disinfectant wipes on the door handle, window controls, steering wheel, gearshift handle, parking brake lever, seat controls, radio controls and any other surfaces that the other driver is likely to have touched. Do this even if the person didn't seem sick.
The biggest threat is sick colleagues who drag themselves to work.
Don't share office supplies. Shared pens are particularly dangerous because many people unthinkingly touch them to their lips. Always carry a pen with you (which also is useful for signing at stores and restaurants). Avoid sharing your phone and computer keyboard. When office equipment must be shared, wash your hands thoroughly before and after use and wipe off the equipment with a disinfectant wipe.
Other office trouble spots: Door handles, drawer pulls, conference room tabletops, water fountains and elevator, fax and copier buttons.
Keep an eye out for coworkers who sneeze into their hands. These people spread their germs when they handle office equipment or shake hands. Sneeze into a tissue, shoulder or sleeve.
If you attend a meeting featuring snacks and handshakes, try to handle your food only with your left hand to decrease the odds that flu germs will make it to your mouth. When in the office cafeteria, don't touch your change and then your food without washing your hands in between.
Use a paper towel to turn off the water and open the door after washing your hand in the office bathroom.
Encourage sick colleagues to go home -- and do so yourself if you are not feeling well. If you are a manager, make sure employees understand that a sick day won't be held against them.