If you are one of those really lucky people who hasn’t caught this year’s flu, congratulations. The bad news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that flu is surging all at once in 49 states. On top of that, a recent study from the University of Maryland revealed that you may be likely to catch it after a sick person simply exhales – not sneezes or coughs – near you.
Certainly, we’ve seen an unusually fast spread this year, said Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC's influenza division, demonstrating with a map of the U.S. that showed 49 states had widespread activity last week. “This hasn’t happened in the last 13 years, and maybe not ever," Jernigan said.
“We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing,” explains Donald Milton, M.D., professor of environmental health at the university and the lead researcher of the study. “People with flu generate infectious aerosols, or tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time, even when they are not coughing.” They do this, he says, especially during the first days of illness.
The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that the tiny aerosols that escaped with normal breathing (or when the 142 certifiably fluish college students did things like recite the alphabet) and stayed suspended in the air could pose a risk of airborne transmission.
And, yep, all this means just what you’re worrying it means — that you're not safe simply staying away from people who are coughing and that "handwashing alone is not enough," Milton says.
What Can Help?
Staying home and away from public places. Or if you're the one with a fever and sore throat, whether or not you have a cough, "stay away from other people for at least three to four days or until your fever is gone — whichever is longer," Milton recommends.
But for now, don't give up on washing your hands like crazy or wiping down surfaces with disinfectants until we see the end of this "moderately severe" flu season. While coughing isn't as critical to airborne transmission as once thought, it can transmit the virus to surfaces like phones or doorknobs, where they can remain “live” for up to 24 hours, the CDC reports.
Exlposion in Influenza
As numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show, an ugly flu season just got uglier. “Since the holidays, we’ve seen an explosion in influenza throughout the country, and a large upsurge in patients hospitalized with influenza,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease expert and member of the CDC’s national surveillance team.
Right now, as hospitals nationwide are “bulging” with influenza patients, Schaffner says, the patients most typically sweating it out in backed-up waiting rooms are over 65. This group, he says, is hardest hit by the season’s more severe prevailing strain; they tend to develop the most serious complications of the respiratory virus, including pneumonia.
Tips to Deal with the Flu
As for what you should do if you think you might have the flu in the middle of a major outbreak, follow these tips.
- Call your doctor. You want time on your side when it comes to treating influenza, so don’t hesitate to call your health care provider if you develop any of these familiar signs of the flu: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
- Take your Tamiflu. The drug can help prevent serious flu complications, and while it’s most effective if prescribed early, Schaffner says new research shows that this antiviral can lessen the severity of the flu even several days into the illness.
- Keep up your fluid intake. Schaffner calls this the most important thing you can do at home, so critical is it to heading off another serious complication of flu (and fever) for those over 65: dehydration. Skip coffee and tea in favor of fruit juices, caffeine-free soda or water. If you don’t want an entire glass, keep up the small sips, day and night.
- Stay home.The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (and that means gone without the help of medicine like Tylenol) except to get medical care. The CDC also recommends that you wear a face mask, if you have one, if you have to go out to get medical care or pick up a prescription yourself.
- Don’t put off going to the hospital. When in doubt, head to the hospital and don’t try to “tough this one out,” or to tough it out alone, if you can help it, Schaffner says.
Dean and Draper
We are encouraging everyone to take responsibility for keeping their viruses to themselves. When you aren’t feeling well please stay home, take care of yourself, and do your part to tamp down this flu.
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