Take vitamin C. Get a flu shot. Ask the doctor about an advance prescription for drugs like Flumadine or Symmetrel, which can prevent flu if taken when outbreaks occur.
People get plenty of advice on preventing common colds and influenza every winter. And for good reason. About 70 million Americans get a cold during an average November-April respiratory disease season. About 25 million get influenza, a much more serious disease.
The advice may really fly this season, because of lingering concerns about anthrax bioterrorism attacks. Early symptoms of inhalation anthrax resemble those of flu. Health authorities have been urging flu shots and other prevention measures to avoid confusion and panic if more anthrax attacks occur at the peak of flu season.
Nobody wants people with colds and flu to overload hospital emergency departments and doctor's offices because they fear anthrax.
Often forgotten, however, is the cold and flu prevention rule that often gets top billing in medical books like the Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, published by the American Public Health Association (APHA).
No wonder. It's not a medicine, so no drug companies are out there promoting it with advertisements. It's so simple that people think it can't possibly work.
Here's the prevention measure that APHA lists as No. 1: “Educate the public and health care personnel in basic personal hygiene, especially the danger of unprotected coughs and sneezes, and hand-to-mucous membrane transmission.”
It's amazing how often people ignore basic personal hygiene - also known as good manners and consideration for others. Notice the number of people, ill with respiratory infections in the weeks ahead, who sneeze and cough right out into the open air.
Killer sneezes? Killer coughs? Go ahead and laugh. Sneezes and coughs are notorious assassins that spread tuberculosis, for instance, which kills 1.9 million people around the world each year, in addition to flu and other diseases.
People use the term “flu” to describe all kinds of minor problems. The real flu is a deadly disease. If this flu season is just average, 20,000 people in the United States will die. Countless others will be deathly sick for a week or more.
Those sneezes and coughs are like spray from an aerosol can. They suspend droplets of saliva and mucus, laden with millions of virus particles, into the air. If other people inhale the droplets, or the droplets touch the eyes or lips, they can transmit the virus.
Cover a sneeze or cough with a bare hand and then touch a telephone handset, computer keyboard, doorknob, or shake hands. That's the “hand-to-mucous membrane transmission” that APHA mentioned. Flu virus gets on the hands while a person coughs, sneezes, or blows the nose. When unwashed hands touch a surface, they transfer the virus. It can survive for hours.
People who touch the surface may contaminate their hands with the virus. If their unwashed hands touch the eyes, nose, or mouth, they may get the flu. Flu virus enters the body through mucous membranes, like those in the eyes and lining the nose.
The take-home messages for flu prevention are simple.
Don't sneeze or cough into the open air. Instead, carry disposable paper facial tissues and use them to cover the nose and mouth before sneezing or coughing.
Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth when using shared objects like telephone handsets, touch pads, door knobs, and computer keyboards. Wash the hands often.
Maybe it's time for society to pitch the odd custom of blessing people who sneeze in the open air. A good scolding might be a lot healthier.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on health appears each Monday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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