How to Stay Healthy in an Office Full of Sick People

Brave the inevitable facts of flu season with these stay-well tips.

Medically reviewed in February 2022

During the height of flu season, you'll likely find yourself surrounded by coughing, sniffling and sneezing coworkers. And close working quarters along with shared kitchens, bathrooms and conference rooms can hasten the spread of the flu and other nasty germs.

But even if skipping work or seeking refuge in your home office aren't viable options, it’s not inevitable that you’ll come down with a bug yourself.

Thankfully, protecting yourself in and out of the office doesn’t have to be complicated. Here, Robin Roach, RN, infection control manager with Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, Florida, breaks down what you need to know.

You know the drill: Get vaccinated!
First and foremost, "the best thing you can do is to get your annual flu shot," Roach says. "It helps ensure you don't get the flu and helps prevent you from spreading the flu, even if you never get sick."

There are various strains of the flu, but the shot helps protect against the ones researchers believe will be most common each season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older get vaccinated annually.

Pregnant women, adults over 65 and children—those younger than 5 and especially younger than 2—are at an increased risk of flu-related complications, so it's especially important for members of these groups to get vaccinated. The complications can be relatively mild, and include sinus or ear infections, or become as severe as life-threatening pneumonia, sepsis or brain inflammation. The flu can also make chronic diseases like asthma or heart failure worse.

The CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October, before the flu begins affecting your community. But the flu shot can be effective throughout flu season, which typically runs from October to as late as May. As long as the flu is still going around, it’s useful to get vaccinated.

You can get immunized at your physician's office, a local clinic or a nearby pharmacy. Check out the vaccine locator to find a convenient spot near your home of office.

Keep your distance
The flu is spread when invisible droplets—produced when infected people sneeze, cough and talk—enter the body, usually through the mouth and nose. Less commonly, you can pick up the flu by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching your nose or mouth.

Droplets containing the flu virus can spread up to six feet through the air, according to the CDC. But Roach believes you may need to keep an even greater distance.

"Our sneezes and coughs tend to shoot out into space nine to ten feet,” she says, “so you really have to stay quite a distance from sick coworkers."

If a number of your colleagues are under the weather, propose conducting conferences by phone or online in lieu of cramming into airless boardrooms.

Give your hands a good wash
Regularly washing your hands with soap and water or disinfecting with an alcohol-based sanitizer can help keep you flu-free. But a quick rinse under warm water won't do the trick—you should scrub for a minimum of 20 seconds, on the backs of hands, palms, fingers and under the nails.

A liquid soap without germ-killing properties can be just as good as the antibacterial kind, according to Roach. "People are more likely to wash their hands regularly with it,” she says. Antimicrobial soaps may be too abrasive for some, she adds. Plus, bacteria may become resistant to antibacterial hand soaps over time, making it harder to kill these germs in the future.

After rinsing your hands, grab a paper towel to turn off the faucet and to avoid picking up germs that may be lurking on surfaces. The same technique can be used on the doorknob when you exit the restroom.

If soap and water aren't available, use a hand disinfectant with at least 60 percent alcohol until you can find an opportunity to give your hands a proper wash. To properly sanitize your hands, rub the product on all parts of your hands until dry; don't wipe the solution off.

Identify and disinfect germ hotspots at work
The flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, so disinfecting heavily-trafficked areas can help prevent the spread of bugs.

"Sometimes we forget to disinfect common surfaces like doorknobs, the kitchenette or coffee area where people congregate, as well as shared phones and bathrooms," Roach says. Wipe down desks, keyboards and the arms of computer chairs, too, even if they don't look dirty. Be sure any electronics can withstand the moisture before cleaning.

Roach recommends cleaning these areas daily with bleach wipes instead of disinfecting towelettes, which don’t always do what they claim. For best results, wash surfaces first with a household cleaner, wipe clean and finish with a germ-killing disinfectant. Most disinfectants typically need to be left on the surface for a period of time, so carefully follow the instructions on the package to get rid of germs.

In a pinch, a towel soaked in a solution of bleach and water or soap and water can get the job done, too. Bleach should be diluted before handling, so generally speaking, stir up one part bleach with 99 parts water. That's about 6 cups of water to every tablespoon of bleach. When choosing bleach or other disinfecting products, select those approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill viruses and bacteria whenever possible.

Adopt healthy habits at home
Eating a nutritious diet, being physically active, managing stress and getting adequate sleep can help maintain overall health, and they may also boost your immunity.

In addition to helping you achieve and sustain a healthy body weight, regular exercise might help you stave off seasonal flu. There's no specific exercise regimen for flu prevention, but guidelines for overall health and wellbeing recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week.

Couple your walks, runs or bike rides with a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and heart-healthy fats.

And don’t forget your seven to nine nightly hours of sleep. "There's growing research that sleep really is the best thing for your well-being," Roach says.

If you're struggling to get a good night's sleep, try creating a sleep schedule and sticking to it. It also helps to avoid large meals, caffeine and the use of electronic devices close to bedtime. And remember to keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.

Even with these risk-reducing precautions, catching the flu is always a possibility.

If you do come down with the virus, do your best to avoid contact with others—sometimes the best way to keep your workplace healthy is to make yourself scarce. If possible, remain home for at least 24 hours after your fever has gone down. If you're at high risk for complications—a group that includes people with asthma, diabetes and heart disease, pregnant women and young children—contact your physician immediately. Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medication, which could mean the difference between a mild sickness and a serious illness.

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