How to Stay Healthy in a House Full of Sick People
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How to Stay Healthy in a House Full of Sick People

Don't let the flu get you.

It’s no secret that the 2017-2018 flu season was one of the worst in years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza activity was widespread in all states, as well as Puerto Rico. The total number of confirmed cases were well over 200,000, but since most people do not seek treatment for the flu, it’s possible that millions more were affected. It’s still too early to determine how severe the upcoming 2018-2019 flu season will be, so it’s important to take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.

“Every year, we sort of hold our breath and wait to see which dominant virus travels across to us,” says Judy Tung, MD, general internist and associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Last year H3N2, also known as Influenza A, was primarily responsible for most flu illnesses. “H3N2 [a subtype of Influenza A] is both very contagious, as well as somewhat severe, particularly for the vulnerable, which include the older patients and the youngest patients,” she notes. However, there was an uptick in Influenza B towards the end of the season.

Last season’s less-effective flu vaccine complicated the situation, which helps explain why someone—or several people—under your roof may have battled the bug. “No vaccine is 100 percent, and most of the time we’re happy if the vaccine is 50 to 60 percent effective,” continues Dr. Tung. “But this year we’re seeing more of 30 to 40 percent effectiveness.” She further explains that while most vaccines do offer protection from the H3N2 strain, “It just doesn’t seem to be penetrating in terms of the immunity as robustly as we’d like to see.”

So, while we can’t avoid coming into contact with other people during flu season, there are ways to keep your home as healthy as possible, especially if someone in your house is sick with the flu or a nasty cold.

Wash your hands properly
Aside from getting the flu shot, one of the best forms of protection during cold and flu season is frequent hand washing. “We ask folks to wash their hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds, and to pay attention to under the fingernails and between the fingers, in the webs,” emphasizes Tung.

Apply effective hand sanitizer correctly
If you don’t have access to a sink and soap, the next best way to cleanse dirty hands is using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 70 percent alcohol, which is necessary in order to disinfect. “Again, we’re asking people to cover the entire surface of the hand—paying attention to under the nails and between the fingers—and most importantly to ensure that the product is fully dried,” states Tung. “There is something about the drying process of the disinfectant that actually kills off the germs. This is why you’ll often see doctors rub it all over their hands, and then wave their hands in the air in order to facilitate the drying process.”

Scrub the shared items
Since the flu virus can remain “alive” for up to 24 hours on surfaces and objects, it’s wise to cleanse objects regularly touched by the coughing, sneezing and shivering members of your household, including:

  • Bath, kitchen and hand towels
  • Tables and desks
  • Counters
  • Doorknobs and light switches
  • Faucets
  • Toilets, including handles
  • Steering wheels and car door handles

The CDC says that typical cleaning products containing chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents, iodophors (iodine-based antiseptics) and alcohols can destroy the virus. Tung also recommends you wipe down shared digital equipment, such as keyboards, smartphones and remote controls. "Disinfect any other items that are frequently handled or that may catch droplets of mucus and saliva, especially toys of young children,” she adds. And make sure not to share items like toothbrushes, cups and dishes.

Open the windows
If you're in close quarters with germy family members, you might want to let in some fresh air. One of the reasons people get sick more often during colder months may be extended periods of time spent indoors, combined with poor air circulation in the home or office, says Tung. So, if possible, aerate your living area. “Obviously, we don’t want to lower the temperature too much where people are shivering and then their immune system becomes compromised,” she adds.

Stop touching your face
Even though you may be diligent about keeping your hands clean, microorganisms and bacteria are, well, just about everywhere. Therefore, the CDC recommends making an effort to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible. If you’re helping nurse someone in your home back to health, consider wearing disposable gloves when cleaning up their contaminated items in their area, such as tissues, towels or body fluids. You may want to wear a paper mask when helping them around the house, as well.

The general principles of healthy living—staying well-hydrated, getting enough sleep and eating a variety of foods that contain vitamins and minerals—should be followed when you have the flu and throughout the year, adds Tung.

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