Medical experts insist washing your hands is the time-tested method of flu prevention, right behind flu shots.. One simple hand washing tip may keep you from catching the bug. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com
Medical experts insist washing your hands is the time-tested method of flu prevention, right behind flu shots.. One simple hand washing tip may keep you from catching the bug. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

State

The flu virus has favorite places to ambush you. But you can fight back.

By John Murawski

jmurawski@newsobserver.com

February 07, 2018 04:42 PM

Doorknobs and faucets are two places where the flu virus likes to hang out to ambush its next victim: you.

ATM keypads and elevator buttons will also do the trick.

And don’t forget shopping carts and gym equipment. Or gas station pumps.

It’s hard to get away from flu germs at the height of flu season.

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The nation’s worst flu outbreak in years has already claimed 95 North Carolinians since Oct. 1, and it’s still getting worse. The flu hasn’t yet peaked, experts say, and more bad news is expected in the coming weeks.

The bug is spread by the people who are trying to avoid getting sick, and supposedly doing all the right things. They dutifully sneeze into their armpit just like the company bathroom poster instructs, but then they grab a handrail and scoop up a Petri dish worth of virus.

People carry the virus to and fro like burs dangling on a hound’s ear, leaving free samples inadvertently here and there for the next person who might saunter by.

“People don’t realize just how many things they touch in a very short period of time,” said Duke University pediatrician Michael Anthony “Tony” Moody, the chief medical officer of Duke’s Human Vaccine Institute. “That’s how this stuff spreads.”

David Weber, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that 18 percent of the people seen at UNC Hospitals’ emergency room are now coming in with flu-like symptoms. Last week more than 200 patients tested positive for the flu, the most cases in a single week in the past five years.

“This is a pretty serious outbreak,” Weber said.

One factor that aids the spread of flu is the fact that we become contagious before we show symptoms – in other words, we can infect relatives and colleagues before anyone suspects we are sick.

Sneezing into a roomful of people will certainly spread the flu, but that’s not the most common way it spreads. The virus has a preferred way of jumping from one person to another: by hitching a ride on your hand.

That’s why medical experts insist on sanitizing and hand-washing as the time-tested method of flu prevention, right behind flu shots.

An alcohol-based sanitizer can kill the virus outright – the flu is a wimp when it comes to such things. Soap can also snuff out a flu virus, but even if the virus survives a sudsy bath, it will just wash it down the drain, where it is doomed to die in the darkness of a city sewer conduit. But hand washing has to be approached strategically to be effective.

When people open a faucet, their hands haven’t yet been washed. If they’re transporting the flu virus, the stuff sticks to the faucet. If they turn off the faucet with their clean hands, they walk out the same way they came in: carrying the flu. Worse yet, if you follow them to the sink, you’ll pick up the germs, too. Solution: Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.

Amid an epidemic it may be hard to believe that the flu is not the easiest bug to transmit from person to person. Infection requires more than making contact with the flu virus. Even if you get the virus all over your hands, the game’s not over. In order to get you sick, the virus has to enter an orifice with a mucus membrane, such as your eye, nose or mouth.

There’s a sunny side to all this talk of viral infestation: The flu virus has a very short lifespan. It usually dies within a few hours in the open air. There is no need to fumigate your office – it’s virtually self-cleaning as the viral critters drop off one by one overnight.

Every day is a clean ledger in your quest to stop the spread of the flu.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski