If you don’t feel well, stay home.

You’ve heard that advice before. Yet when most of us find ourselves stricken with a cold or the flu, we still go to school or work.

Even if you’re not afflicted yourself and you’re cautious about interacting with anyone who’s coughing or sneezing; keep surfaces immaculate; and wash your hands throughout the day, that still may not be enough to protect you. 

This influenza season — considered “moderately severe” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — has seen about 100 deaths per week throughout the U.S. since mid-December. The agency’s Influenza Surveillance Report for the week ending January 13, 2018, puts all regions of the U.S.  at an “elevated” number of doctor visits for flu-like symptoms and California is among the states hardest hit.

To make matters worse, the flu may be spread a lot more easily than many thought, warns Sheryl Ehrman, Ph.D., dean of engineering at San José State University.

A recent study co-authored by Dr. Ehrman indicates the influenza virus resides in more than just the particles in an infected person’s sneezes or coughs; it may be transmitted via the infected person’s breath.

Ehrman, along with researchers from the University of Maryland, Missouri Western State University, and University of California, Berkeley, contributed to the study, published on January 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The flu is a lot more complicated than we originally thought,” notes Ehrman, calling the results, gathered from nearly 180 volunteers, “surprising.”

Over the span of nearly five years, the researchers collected the exhaled breath of people who’d been confirmed to have the flu. Funded by the CDC and National Institutes of Health, the trial found traces of the virus in the breath of the subjects, meaning the flu could be spread just by sharing the same air as someone who’s ill.

Prevention is Key

Ehrman says one way the results of the new study might be used is to encourage the use or installation of ventilation systems where large numbers of people congregate, such as transportation terminals, workplaces, schools, shopping centers, and concert venues.

“We don’t have control over who is on the bus with us; we don’t know who is or isn’t sick,” she says. Because of this, Ehrman believes that improvements in prevention measures in public settings could prevent large-scale epidemics.

College campuses are an especially good place to target for prevention efforts, she adds: “We are expecting thousands of students to be coming back soon for the start of the spring semester, [so] it is important we create a culture where people will stay home and not drag themselves to campus.”

“If you’re not feeling well, don’t be a hero,” reiterates Ehrman. “Please stay home. The best protection for everyone is if the people who are sick take care of themselves and don’t come in to school or work …  Otherwise, [the flu] will just keep spreading.”  

Donald Milton, M.D., DrPH., professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the study’s lead researcher, will continue his research on the effects of the flu virus in college dormitories. Follow Dr. Milton’s research at gotflu.org.

8 Ways to Stop the Flu

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with the flu.
  • If you begin to feel sick while at work or school, go home as soon as possible.
  • Stay home for at least 24 hours after fever is gone.
  • Visit gov/flu for more tips, recommendations and updates.

 Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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