While cold & flu viruses circulate year-round, illnesses tend to peak between December and February. Many schools and workplaces have become a chorus of coughs and sneezes that are likely to continue through spring. Avoiding an illness can be difficult when working in an office or having kids in school; the more people interact with others, the more likely they’ll run into someone with a bug. Ohio is currently experiencing widespread flu, and an upper respiratory infection has been making its way throughout local school districts. Here are some tips to cull the office plague.
Wash your hands
The most effective way to avoid being infected by an illness is to wash your hands often and thoroughly. Germs lurk on everything from phones to doors to the handle of the coffee pot. By washing your hands, you can avoid both catching viruses and spreading them. Scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds (paying attention to your nails) and rinsing well helps remove most pathogens from hands. It’s pretty much common sense— if you come in contact with something that could have germs, wash your hands. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol works in a pinch, but sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs.
Avoid Touching Your Face
Cold & flu viruses are spread through coughing, sneezing, and saliva that may spray while talking. These droplets can land on just about anyone or anything within 6 feet. Cold viruses can live outside the body for about three hours, and flu viruses can live outside the body for about 8 hours. The dry air common in winter can lead to dried mucous membranes and chapped skin, which are our bodies’ first defenses against pathogens. Touching something contaminated and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth can introduce pathogens to your body.
Disinfecting wipes and disinfectant spray are relatively cheap, but are invaluable during the cold & flu season. Taking a few moments to wipe down keyboards, mice, phones, door handles, and other various objects can go a long way towards stopping the spread of viruses. It’s important to follow the directions of your disinfectant of choice, however; disinfecting things usually requires the product remain on the surface of items for a few minutes to fully eliminate pathogens. It’s also important that if you choose to use disinfecting wipes, use one wipe on one surface and then throw it away so you don’t accidentally spread germs to other surfaces.
Get Your Flu Shot
While it’s usually recommended to get a flu shot before the start of the cold & flu season, it’s not too late to get one. Flu shots are available at most pharmacies in addition to doctor offices, and they are quite affordable, even without medical insurance. Harvard Medical School predicted a rather bad flu season this year, which is all the more reason to get vaccinated. While no flu shot can guarantee 100% protection throughout the flu season, they usually give about a 40-60% chance of not getting the flu.
If You’re Sick, Stay Home
When you don’t feel well, your thinking tends to be cloudy, which can lead to mistakes in your work. If you decide to take some medication for your symptoms, they can have side effects such as dizziness & drowsiness, and affect cognitive & motor skills. The loss of productivity to businesses has been estimated at over $150 billion due to people showing up to work for the paycheck, but too ill to actually work.
Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious. People with a cold or the flu can spread it to others about six feet away. It’s possible to spread the illnesses before even knowing you’re sick, and people with a cold virus or the flu are usually contagious for about 5-7 days after showing symptoms. Coming to work can actually prolong an illness, due to not getting adequate rest to fight off the virus. Coming to work sick also increases the risk of co-workers getting sick, their children or family members getting sick, and the entire business coming to a halt until everyone is well.
There is also the matter of those with compromised immune systems to take into consideration. While many people may not think a cold is very dangerous, it can be devastating and even fatal to those with compromised immune systems, such as those going through chemotherapy, living with an immune deficiency, living with certain chronic illnesses, or on immunosuppressants for autoimmune diseases. The very young and the elderly are also at high risk due to their weakened immune systems. For these people, upper respiratory infections can quickly become bronchitis, pneumonia, myocarditis, encephalitis, organ failure, and sepsis, putting their lives in danger.
Colds and the flu typically last 5-10 days, depending on severity. The CDC recommends that people stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medication), or at least 4-5 days after symptoms began for those who don’t have a fever. Once the fever breaks and symptoms such as coughing and sneezing improve, you should be ready to return to work.
If you absolutely have to come to work sick, isolate yourself as much as possible and follow the above tips to limit the spread of your illness. Your co-workers and bosses will appreciate it greatly. We can't avoid all germs all the time, and we're bound to catch something, but practicing good hygiene and courtesy can go a long way to keep your workspace from an epidemic.
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