Thwarting the Flu

January 30th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

As flu season kicks into high gear, are we doing enough to stop the spread of disease? Or too much?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

So far, nobody in my house has come down with the flu. This is mysterious, considering the fact that the Google Flu Trend tracker shows a huge, red “Intense” rating over the entire United States. Still, we’ve had our shots and live in one of the least affected areas for flu contamination. So I’m knocking on wood – albeit with knuckles heavily soaked in hand sanitizer.

Like many borderline germaphobes, I’ve been paying special attention to this year’s flu outbreak, since this year has been one of the worst on record. But even though we’ve made it this far, we aren’t out of the woods yet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incidents of the flu generally peak in January and February – so if you haven’t already come down with it, keep in mind that flu season is still in full swing.

But if a doctor hasn’t diagnosed you, how do you know if you’ve already had the flu? An NPR story points out that not every winter ailment can automatically be called the flu (despite its appeal as a catch-all word for winter sickness). Dr. Andrew Pavia, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Utah, described the flu, saying, “A classic case of flu starts off suddenly with high fever, maybe shaking chills, severe muscle and body aches.”

On top of the question of whether or not you have the flu, there’s added concern due to the fact that there are three different strains of the flu floating around this year. Dr. Pavia offered some suggestion for combatting the flu. First, the flu doesn’t stand up well to soft environments, like tissues, but can last up to 12 hours on hard surfaces like counters. This means that it’s easy to pick up the flu from doorknobs, sink faucets and computer keyboards. Clearly, keeping surfaces clean is essential.

But beyond counters and the usual suspects for carrying germs – like bathroom doors – there are other problematic surfaces you might not have considered. A recent article from the AARP advised steering clear of restaurant menus, ordering drinks sans lemon wedges (nearly 70 percent of which contain disease-carrying microbes), wiping restaurant condiment bottles with sanitizing wipes, and avoiding soap dispensers in public restrooms. Take the soap, the article advises, but make sure to scrub your hands with plenty of hot water for 20 seconds.

My as-of-yet flu-free toddler and I are scrubbing away, using another trick we learned from NPR: washing for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice through.

There are those who say that our hand sanitizer-obsessed society is making us more susceptible to disease. Are all of these safety measures necessary, or are they overkill? Weigh in here.