Flu season is here again, and although “influenza activity”–to use the language of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—is low right now, it is expected to increase in the coming weeks. So, what steps should you take when flu comes a-knockin’ at your door? How can you reduce the risk of infection to the rest of your family when one family member gets the flu?
- BE PROACTIVE: GET THE ANNUAL FLU VACCINE: CDC says getting the flu vaccine is the single most important thing that everyone six months old and older can do to reduce their risk of flu. According to CDC, flu is more dangerous for children than the common cold; it can lead to severe complications, especially in children under the age of two, and in children with chronic health problems. Other people at high risk for flu-related complications are adults 65 years old and older and pregnant women. It takes about two weeks following vaccination for protective antibodies to develop in the body, so get your family vaccinated as soon as possible each year.
- AVOID OTHER SICK PEOPLE: As much as possible try to avoid other sick people during flu season.
- GIVE THE PATIENT SOME “SPACE.” The flu virus is a “cootie” that is never satisfied to infect just one family member. Through sneezing and coughing the flu virus is launched into the air with high hopes of reaching multiple hosts. One way to counteract that sneaky strategy is to keep your sick family member separated, as much as reasonably possible—ideally with a separate bedroom and bathroom—from everyone else.
- OFFER FLUIDS: Offer plenty of fluids to the sick household member. Fever with the flu can lead to dehydration, which makes the patient even sicker.
- PRACTICE “FLU HYGIENE.” Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue that is disposed of after use. Everyone in the household should wash their hands frequently and properly (by singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice–no matter how unhappy you feel–while lathering up with warm, soapy water). Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth—that just makes it too easy for the flu virus to spread!
- HUMIDIFY YOUR HOUSEHOLD AIR. Flu viruses survive best in dry air. According to a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, humidifying your home to 40-60 percent relative humidity helps reduce flu virus in the air and on frequently touched surfaces such as sink faucets, door handles and countertops.
- USE YOUR WASHING MACHINES. The flu virus can survive on hard surfaces for several hours and on fabric surfaces for even longer, so use your washing machines to your best advantage: Wash and dry dishes, glasses and utensils in the dishwasher to help disinfect them. Wash linens and clothing with detergent and hot water (follow manufacturers’ directions; use bleach if fabric directions permit) and tumble dry on a hot setting.
- DISINFECT FREQUENTLY TOUCHED SURFACES: Professor Douglas Powell of Kansas State University was recently quoted in a CNN article titled Getting Dangerous Germs out of Your Home as saying, “Chlorine bleach is your friend.” Mix up a simple flu germ-busting solution of chlorine bleach by adding ¼ cup of regular household bleach to one gallon of water.1 Wash frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails and faucets, and then disinfect them by applying the bleach solution. Leave surface wet for 10 minutes, then rinse with plain water.
- MEDICATED APPROPRIATELY: Avoid given aspirin to young children under the age of 5. Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the aches and pains of the flu.
- KNOW WHEN TO SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION: Most cases resolve by themselves. Seek medical attention if you are concerned about the patient. If the patient starts have breathing difficulty, develops bluish skin, becomes dehydrated, or does not wake up, is irritable or does not interact with other household members, medical attention should be sought immediately.
For more information on preventing the spread of flu, please see www.cdc.gov/flu.
Ralph Morris, MD, MPH, is a Physician and Preventive Medicine and Public Health official living in Bemidji, MN.
1If using concentrated bleach, reduce the amount of bleach to 2 ½ tablespoons.