Stock - boy wipes his nose with a tissue

If you’ve opened up a news app on your phone recently, there is a high probability you’ve caught a story related to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan city located in China and its spread to other regions of the world.

I even found a popular documentary on Netflix called “Pandemic.” Of course, I had to watch it. As fascinating as this series was, it also sparked a bit of uneasiness as I learned more about the spread of disease, particularly influenza.

In America, influenza, or the flu as it is better known, is often downplayed as not being as serious as other illnesses or diseases around the world. For example, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 lasted for two years and resulted in a total of 28,616 cases, with 11,325 deaths. Most of these deaths occurred in West Africa. Only 15 of these deaths occurred outside of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone; two of those deaths occurred in the United States (CDC, 2019).

By comparison, the CDC currently estimates that so far this season in the United States alone, there have been at least 19 million cases of the flu, with 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths (CDC, 2020). Take into consideration that flu season generally lasts through February, coupled with the fact that these numbers are only for the United States, and you can see why influenza is a very serious illness.

How does influenza spread? Person to person. This means that anyone who is contagious can spread the virus to another person up to six feet away by coughing, sneezing or talking. The virus lives in droplets from an infected person that are passed through the air and can land in the mouths or noses, or even be inhaled into the lungs of another person. The virus may also be passed if a person kisses or shares utensils (or straws, ChapStick, etc.) with an infected person.

It takes from one to four days for the virus to cause the infected person to develop symptoms; however, the virus can be passed to others before symptoms develop. People are most contagious during the first three to four days of getting the flu.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, aches, cough, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat and fatigue. Although most people are not contagious seven days after infection, their symptoms may last another week. As miserable as it sounds, the flu can last up to two weeks and fatigue may linger for several days afterwards (Harvard, 2016).

The good news is that the flu is preventable, as are many other communicable diseases if we take proper preventable measures. It’s important to take these measures, especially during peak flu season, to ensure that you don’t become a victim of the influenza virus. The CDC recommends the following to reduce the likelihood that you’ll contract the flu:

Take every day preventative actions such as using proper handwashing techniques. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (sing the ABC’s while washing your hands to get your 20 seconds in). You should always wash your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Visibly dirty hands should always be washed with soap and water.

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. If given the choice between using hand sanitizer and washing your hands with soap and water, choose hand washing. Hand washing reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on hands, whereas using a hand sanitizer can reduce the number of microbes but does not eliminate all types of germs on hands.

Avoid touching your face (eye, nose, mouth) with your hands.

Avoid close contact with sick people and stay home when you are sick to prevent the spread of illness.

Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hands. Use a tissue or your sleeve instead.

Disinfect objects such as phones, doorknobs, etc. frequently.

Get your flu shot! Getting this shot reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% and 60%. If you do get the flu and you’ve had your flu shot, usually symptoms are not as severe. In addition, this vaccine can be lifesaving in young children and those who have weakened immune systems, including older adults and pregnant women.

If you are planning on traveling, stay up to date with travel notices related to outbreaks of illnesses.

By taking these preventative measures and practicing good health habits we can reduce our likelihood of contracting and spreading the flu. Based on the number of cases and deaths so far this year in the United States, we must be more diligent in taking care of ourselves and incorporating prevention practices into our daily lives.

Melinda Barber, M.S., is a public and community health assistant professor at Utah Valley University.