Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Prevention: Flu Season is here

Posted in Health by commorancy on October 24, 2009

[Updated: 2018-01-30] Since this 2017-2018 flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent years, I’ll update my advice.

Now that flu season is upon us, I always like to take steps to prevent myself from getting infected from other people or items they may have touched. While there is no magic bullet for this, here are some rules that I personally follow that may help you avoid getting the flu. Let’s explore.

Flu Shots

In my original 2009 article, I didn’t mention flu shots… and it was for a reason. This is intended as an everyday prevention article, but the intent was to firmly stay away from discussing medical technologies. While medical professionals often profess that a flu shot is effective, take that advice for what it’s worth… advice. While you can get a flu shot at your local pharmacy, at your place of business or at your doctor’s office, you may find that this prevention mechanism isn’t always as effective as it could be. Due to recent events surrounding H3N2, I’ve changed my stance since 2009 and that’s why I am now leading this article with this section.

During the 2017-2018 flu season, the dominant strain of the flu appears to be H3N2. This strain is particularly virulent and has resulted in a number of deaths in children and adults from complications. You may be asking, “Why didn’t my flu shot protect me from H3N2? Wasn’t this strain in the shot?” Yes, this strain (or at least the most common mutation) was included within the 2017-2018 flu shot formulation. You continue, “But, I took the shot and I still got sick anyway”. There may be several reasons for this.

  1. The flu shot may not have contained the exact strain of H3N2 that you got.
  2. The flu shot is formulated using eggs as a carrier. However, the H3N2 strain does not thrive well within an egg carrier causing this strain to be, at best, less effective and, at worst, ineffective in the shot.
  3. In flu seasons other than the 2017-2018 season, it has been known that those in charge of the flu strain lottery have guessed the wrong strains to include in the slot. This has directly contributed to the flu season because the dominant strain was not included.

If you received a flu shot during the 2017-2018 flu season and still got the flu, it may have been a direct result of number 1 and, more likely, number 2 contributing to your illness. As rapidly as viruses can mutate, it’s possible you picked up a strain that wasn’t included in the shot formulation (i.e., number 3).

For very young children or the elderly, getting a flu shot early is still a good first defense. However, don’t rely strictly on the shot to prevent getting the flu as it may not always protect you as expected. You should also consult with a medical professional to ensure that taking the flu shot is the right choice for your health as some people may have reactions to the formulation. Only your doctor can give you medical advice about your health.

As a result of this season’s flu shot ineffectiveness against H3N2, you will need to still use other preventative measures such as …

Wash your hands often with soap and warm water

Washing your hands frequently will eliminate most viruses and bacteria from your hands and prevent you getting them near your nose or mouth. If you can wash your face, you should do so as well.

During winter months, do not eat from serve-yourself open buffets

Eating off of salad bars at buffet-style restaurants or other communal type restaurants only serves to get you sick.  Instead, opt for ordering from the menu so the food is cooked in the kitchen and served to you directly. This doesn’t eliminate the risk of getting sick, but it drastically reduces your chances because the plates will be clean and the food will be prepared fresh and hot. A cook in the kitchen could be sick, but most better restaurants don’t allow sick cooks in the kitchen (it’s a liability, after all). The fewer people who touch your food, the less chance you have of picking up a virus.

For this same reason, don’t buy foods in grocery stores from open buffet fill-it-yourself containers. The reason for this rule is very clear. Most buffet style places leave spoons out all day in containers and simply switch out the food leaving dirty utensils.  Thus, spoons may have been touched by hundreds of people. By touching the spoon on the buffet table, you may be infecting yourself immediately. The food itself may also harbor the flu or a cold virus simply from someone sneezing. For sanitary reasons, avoid buffet serve-yourself meals during the winter to keep yourself healthier. This advice covers both hot and cold food bars including olive bars.

As a side note about buffets.. Buffets are extremely unsanitary. The required sneeze guards do nothing for children. The guards are designed with adult height in mind. A child can easily be face-high to the food, yet their face is under the guard. It’s easy for a child to cough, laugh, sneeze or play around or even with the food or utensils. Since children seem to be the prime carriers for cold and flu viruses, this makes buffets and other serve-yourself food tables very unsanitary. Instead, you should order from a menu at a table. You should always ask the server if they plan serving you your food from the buffet table. If they intend to serve from the buffet, ask to have the restaurant make it fresh in the kitchen instead of serving food to you from the buffet. Better still, visit restaurants that don’t offer a buffet bar of any kind.

Carry Around Restaurants

This buffet bar advice extends to all kinds of carry around small plate restaurants including Mongolian BBQ, Brazilian Steakhouse, Japanese conveyor belt, Japanese floating boat or Dim Sum restaurants. I’d even avoid company holiday parties which use servers to carry around appetizers on trays and buffet style plates (not that this food is usually very good anyway). Basically, my advice includes any restaurant where food is paraded in front of many people before you have the opportunity to grab it. To these I also say, “Stay away.”

Company Holiday Parties

In general, parties in the winter are a bad idea. When you attend, you’re mixing with a many folks that you probably don’t know. Worse, though, is the food. Many company parties choose to use carry around servers for appetizers. They also like to use chafing dishes to serve buffet style and sometimes fondue fountains for desserts.

You should contact your company’s event planner early in 2018 and request that they choose a sit-down restaurant-style waiter served meal over a buffet for all winter parties. You should mention that it is much more sanitary and more healthy for everyone involved. The last thing the company holiday party planner wants is to be responsible for making half of the company sick, especially during a particularly harsh flu season. The way to perpetuate sickness is to serve buffet style food. Inevitably, someone will come to the party sick and spread it around.

Tanning beds and UV

While this next portion may seem unusual, it may actually prevent you from getting the flu or colds. If you use a tanning bed, you may decrease your chances of actually contracting a virus or bacterial infection during the winter months. UV is known to disinfect surfaces and kill bacteria and viruses. Using a tanning bed should kill viruses and bacteria on the surface of your skin, both hands and body. You don’t necessarily need to use a tanning bed for the maximum time. It may take as little as 1-3 minutes to successfully disinfect the surface of your skin (not necessarily enough time to tan you), although, likely enough time to kill viruses. Disinfecting the surface of your skin through UV should kill off any viruses you may have picked up through contact with other people.

However, once a virus has entered your nasal passages, you are already infected. UV light doesn’t penetrate deep enough to disinfect inside your body. So, don’t tan once you are sick as it won’t help stop it and may only serve to dehydrate you even more than the virus already has. Tanning can be dehydrating. Drink water after tanning.

How often you do this really depends on how often you are out in public with lots of people around you. The longer you are out in public around potentially sick people, then you should tan at the end of the day to kill off anything you may have come in contact with. You should tan at the end of the day rather than the beginning so you kill the viruses you may have gotten earlier that day.

Shower regularly with soap

Having good hygiene by showering will also wash away any viruses that may have landed on your skin. So, shower regularly to reduce viruses and bacteria on the surface of your skin. A reasonably hot shower or bath combined with soap is quite good at doing this.

Cover open wounds

If you have any cuts or open wounds, cover them properly with bandages. Having an open wound is an invitation for viruses to enter. Keep your cuts clean and keep them covered. Also, using antibacterial ointments like Neosporin on wounds can reduce infection and may also kill off or prevent entry of viruses.

Don’t use public phones or public computers

If you must use public phones or computers, you should bring along some Windex wipes or other disinfecting towelettes to wipe down and disinfect the surface before using it. Basically, you should avoid these devices or clean surfaces where the item could come in contact with your face (like a phone). With public computers, you’re touching the keyboard and may then wipe your nose with your hands. So, carry some disinfecting towelettes around during the winter months for quick disinfection. Also, carrying hand sanitizer allows you to clean your hands immediately after touching such items or, alternatively, go the restroom and wash your hands.

Wipe down surfaces in your office

Because offices are where we spend most of the day, always wipe down your phone, desk and keyboard. You never know when someone may sit down at your desk and temporarily use your space without your knowledge. Always wipe and disinfect your space each day during the winter time. In fact, you should ask your office supply person to supply your company with disinfecting wipes. This initiative shows the company cares about a healthy workplace.

Public transportation

While I know that public transit is very ‘green’ and, in some cases, cost effective, it can also be a place where you can get sick. By sitting in seats where sick people may have been, you risk contracting the flu or cold viruses just by being there. You may not be able to avoid the use of public transportation, but you can reduce your chances by standing up rather than sitting down. If you stand on public transportation during the winter, you are not touching the seats where someone sick may have been sitting. Holding the hand rail only, you can easily clean your hands with instant hand sanitizer once you exit.  Carry a small sized hand sanitizer with you in winter months. If you must sit, then avoid touching your face and use a hand sanitizer after you exit the transit.

If you notice someone coughing around you, move away from them (preferably to another car on a train) or further back if you are in a bus. You can also get off at the next stop and wait for the next bus or train, if they are frequent enough.

For airplane transit, there’s not really much you can do here. If there’s someone who is sick on a plane, you’re very likely to catch it. So, the best bet is to limit travel to only necessary movement during winter months.

Avoid eating out often / order take-out if possible

Eating at any restaurant exposes you to viruses. To avoid this risk, don’t eat out. Instead, buy foods and cook for yourself. Eating at home, there is no risk of becoming infected with a virus (except what you or your family brings home). Because your home is basically a controlled environment, you can prevent getting sick by staying home more often in the winter. If you really do want to eat out, take the food from the restaurant as takeout. Order over the phone from home or your cell and then pick the food up after it’s ready. This means you get exposed to almost nothing other than door handles and money handling. So, use some hand sanitizer or wash your hands when you get home.

Children and School

Unfortunately, if you have school age children, there is little you can do about this risk. Your children will be exposed every day at school. Because schools care about having children’s butts in seats (this is how they get their funding) more than caring about whether a child is sick, school ends up as one big petri dish. With school age children, all you can do is send them off and hope for the best. When your child brings something home (and they will), you’re likely to get it yourself. Until schools are required to care about each child’s health over attendance, this will remain a problem every year. When your child does get sick, keep them at home.

Stay at Home

If you don’t have school age children, staying at home during the height of the flu season can drastically reduce your chances of catching a virus. Going to the movies, eating out, visiting crowded shopping malls, zoos, museums or any other mingling with large gatherings of people all greatly increase your chances of getting sick during flu season. When possible, stay in.

Grocery Shopping

During December, January and February, I only go out for limited reasons such as grocery shopping. I also try to visit stores during off-hours or hours when fewer people will be shopping. These times are typically an hour before closing or the first hour after opening. If it’s a 24 hour market or open until midnight, anytime after 9PM is a great time to shop. In fact, the later at night, the fewer people you will see. You should also wipe down the push cart handle with disinfectant if you have it or use sanitizer after you’re done. Better, shop with your reusable shopping bag. It’s your bag and only you and the cashiers get to touch it. Wash your shopping bags frequently to get rid of germs.

Shopping with Home Delivery

Since companies like Amazon, GrubMarket, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates, Safeway and Instacart are now making it easier and cheaper than ever to shop for home delivery, here’s another way you can prevent going out. Order what you need from one of these apps and have it delivered right to your door. This prevents the need to even enter a store. Inevitably, you will need to go out to fill your car’s tank or get certain items, but you can limit your people interaction on these trips and, thus, reduce your chances of getting sick.

The above are many of my rules that I regularly follow. However, sometimes it isn’t always convenient to follow all of them. In those cases, washing hands frequently with warm water is the bare minimum to help reduce the chances of getting sick during the winter flu season months.

Wash Clothing Frequently

In the winter, we wear a whole lot more outerwear than is normal in other months. Some of these include scarves and gloves. Buy and use washable outerwear. These materials allow you to throw your gloves and scarves into the washer and dryer to disinfect anything that you might have come in contact with while out and about. Gloves are particularly problematic. If you live in a city with a subway or use other public transportation, your gloves can easily pick up germs that could lead to the Flu. Wash your outerwear frequently during the winter. I’d also recommend to avoid wool or other outerwear that requires dry cleaning. Because it’s difficult to launder these items, you’ll wear them for much than you normally would clothing that can be washed in a washer. Wearing gloves for too long could be what makes you sick. Instead, choose winter clothing that keeps you warm and that is easy to launder… and wash it frequently during the flu season.

Disclaimer: This article is not to be construed in any way as dispensing medical advice. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with a licensed medical professional to discuss your specific health needs.

 

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  1. […] Posted in Health, health and beauty by commorancy on October 25, 2009 I’ve recently discussed what I do to help prevent the cold and flu virus, that one is the longer of these two articles.  So, this one will be much shorter.  If you do get […]

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