Cold and Flu Season Precautions in Alaska
Lavern Davidhizar, DO
Nobody likes getting colds or the flu—which is why taking preventative measures to avoid getting sick is well worth the time and effort. Trying not to infect others is also a smart precaution, because passing the flu or a cold to family or coworkers is like throwing a boomerang. There’s a good chance a virus will come back to you in the end.
How can you avoid getting ill with colds and the flu this season? We’ve compiled a list of suggestions to help you minimize virus exposure and risk, for yourself and others.
Tip #1: Get the flu vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises a seasonal flu shot, injected into the upper arm, for anyone older six months or older. The flu shot protects against 3-4 strains of influenza. Ideally, you should get the vaccine in October, but any time before the end of the year is still early enough to protect you from the season’s peak (between December and March).
The influenza vaccine is particularly important for people in higher-risk groups: pregnant women, infants, small children, people over 65, and immunocompromised individuals for whom the flu could have serious complications.
Time your flu shot wisely. Allow two weeks after your shot for antibodies to build up in your system. If you plan to fly for the holidays, for example, get your shot two weeks or more before getting on a plane, train, or bus.
Tip #2: Stay away from sick people.
If you know someone has a cold, the flu, or some other form of contagious viral infection, try to avoid close contact. This means no hugs, handshakes, or kisses on the cheek, mouth, or hand (for those of you who are old-fashioned).
Keep some space between you at parties or meetings, too. The CDC says viruses can travel about six feet via droplets from a sneeze or cough. During cold and flu season, waving hello is a fine alternative to contracting a virus—but if you must shake hands (for example, at a business conference or job interview), avoid touching your face until you can sneak away and use hand sanitizer.
When is a sick person contagious? According to the CDC, the flu is contagious for about eight days, starting one day before the person begins to show flu symptoms, then continuing for about a week. (Children are contagious for a few days longer than adults.)
Colds are about the same—the difference being that the average upper respiratory cold tends to linger on for a while. This means people who have colds but are no longer infectious tend to go to work and school while displaying cold symptoms. Unless you’ve been closely tracking the onset of your friends’ and colleagues’ sneezes and coughs, it’s difficult if not impossible to tell if they’re contagious or not.
Your best bet during cold and flu season is to wash your hands often and, when possible, to keep a polite distance from anyone who shows symptoms (or anyone you know to be exposed to sick adults, children, and infants).
Tip #3: Don’t touch your face.
The average person touches his or her face nearly four times per hour, according to flu researchers who studied people on subways. Multiply this figure by the hours in a day and you’re touching your face about 100 times a day. And that’s a conservative estimate: some researchers have estimated we touch our faces as many as 3000 times in a twenty-four hour period.
The true number doesn’t matter. The important thing to remember is you touch your face instinctively, without thinking. Becoming aware of the unconscious behavior is the first step to curbing it, or at least altering the behavior to avoid the spread of germs.
For example, knowing you’re likely to rub your nose or touch your mouth at some point every hour, you can make a greater effort to handle the objects around you differently. Many doors (including public restroom doors) can be opened with your shoulder, forearm, or a fist, instead of your fingertips. You can also carry a handkerchief and use it to avoid direct contact with objects.
As for your face, you can use a tissue or napkin instead of your bare fingers to rub an itchy nose or wipe your mouth after eating or drinking.
Tip #4: Wash or sanitize your hands often.
Both the cold and the flu are shared through contact with mucus and saliva droplets. These can spread through the air or by touching objects that have been touched (or sneezed or coughed on!) by infected people.
To reduce your chance of transferring a virus to your own system, keep your hands clean. This means the frequent use of hand sanitizer (alcohol-based) or washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (the CDC’s recommendation). A good way to count out 20 seconds is to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice. Rub your hands together vigorously, as the friction can help to remove or kill the virus.
Tip #5: Disinfect objects.
Anything someone infectious has touched or used (especially cups, glasses, plates, and silverware) needs to be washed with soap and water or disinfected after use. Never share a drinking cup with someone who is likely to be contagious. If you must share a drink, wipe the rim of the glass before and after using it (though this is not guaranteed to protect you).
Another good tip is to clean surfaces with a disinfectant wipe before you touch them. Many grocery stores now offer these wipes near the grocery cart area so you can wipe down handles hundreds of other people have touched before you.
Other surfaces worth wiping down include doorknobs, gym equipment, computer keyboards (especially at shared terminals like in the library), phone receivers, TV remote controls and gaming controls, and tray tables and armrests on airplanes, busses, and trains.
Tip #6: Cover your nose and mouth.
Use a handkerchief or tissue when you cough or sneeze—or better yet, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm (inside of the elbow). This contains the flying droplets full of virus. It also keeps your hands virus-free. Lastly, it cuts down on unneeded contact between your hand and face.
Tip #7: Stay home — don’t infect others.
If you’re sick and you suspect you are infectious (because you’re in the first 5-7 days of your illness), avoid going out of the house when unnecessary.
Tip #8: See a doctor.
When is it a good idea to see a doctor about the cold or the flu?
There’s no way to 100% guarantee you won’t get sick this season, but these common sense precautions can help to reduce your risk and protect yourself and those around you from the dreaded cold and flu.
If you are suffering are interested in getting a flu shot or are in need of care contact Family Medical Clinic in Soldotna, Alaska today at (907) 262-7566.