The current buzz in the media and around the water cooler is about the upcoming flu season, especially the H1N1 strain of influenza – or the “Swine Flu”. While the main focus of the discussion centers around getting immunized, there are some simple habits around good personal hygiene that are key to keeping the spread of virus in check.
First it’s important to remember that viruses, like all flu strains, are transmitted in airborne water particles usually launched by a cough or a sneeze from the person with the infection. Being in the vicinity of that cough or sneeze, you might inhale those water particles, or get some on your clothing or hands then touch your mouth, nose or eyes. Any of which will easily accept the water particle carrying the virus. Now, let’s get real. “Water Particles” is a nice way of saying mucus or saliva. That’s what you’re really breathing in or putting into your mouth from the other person, along with that flu virus. Yuck!
You don’t even need to be all that close to the person sneezing or coughing. The sneeze or cough can launch those mucus particles several feet and many of the micro-droplets will stay airborne for some time. Typically, these droplets are so fine that we don’t even see them, so we don’t have an awareness of their impact, until it’s too late and we’ve come down with the flu. Here’s a good video to explain an experiment by Ruth Carrico of the University of Louisville, designed to teach health care workers about the impact of a cough or sneeze from a patient. Watch it here.
The first thing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends is to stay home when you are sick to avoid spreading the virus. Secondly, they teach the practice of “covering your cough”. This is done by covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue. If a tissue is not available, they recommend using the crook of your arm (elbow) to block the cough or sneeze. This is different from when we were taught to cover your cough with your hand. The reason is (and the video shows this clearly) that all of the mucus particles and the virus are now on your hands when you cover your sneeze with your hand. When you then touch something, like a doorknob, a computer keyboard, or someone’s hand in a handshake, you’ve just transmitted that virus. You are less likely to transmit the mucus droplets via your elbow. Finally, if you do use a tissue, throw it away. Don’t reuse it. Then wash your hands. More on that later.
For those of us who use a handkerchief, while the CDC doesn’t specifically address them, handkerchiefs are reused through out the day and are more likely to spread virus as those moisture laiden “snot rags” are fermenting away in your pocket. While I always carry one, it’s probably a better idea to use a disposable tissue during flu season.
The CDC also recommends washing your hands regularly during the day, especially after coughing or sneezing, after using the restroom, before preparing and/or eating food, the list goes on. The see the complete list, click here. When washing your hands, use warm water to wet your hands. Then lather with soap and rub all of the surfaces of your hands: the palms, back of your hands, and especially the fingernails. Continue rubbing for at least 20 seconds. Then rinse with warm water and dry your hands with a paper towel.
If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends using an alcohol based hand sanitizer by applying it to one hand then rubbing both hands together covering the surfaces of both hands and fingers with the product. Continue rubbing until your hands are dry.
Finally, keep your immune system supported with plenty of sleep, regular physical exercise, nutritious foods, plenty of water and manage your stress with regular massage therapy, meditation, yoga or tai chi.
Sure go ahead and get the flu shot, but you’ll still need to practice these simple personal hygiene techniques to keep yourself and those around you protected.