Tips from the pros on how to fight the flu

The flu — influenza — is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. While the flu can be relatively mild, it can also result in hospitalization or death.

In addition to the vaccine, one of the best things you can do to avoid getting and sharing the flu is to use these hospital-proven techniques.

handwashing soap and water cdc

Hospital infection-control strategies can be adapted for everyday use

“We need to be proactive not only to keep ourselves healthy, but to avoid transmitting illness if we’re sick,” says Eileen Finerty, RN, MS, CIC, director for infection control and occupational health at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City.

People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away, according to the CDC, and most experts think the viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when someone with flu coughs, sneezes or talks. These tiny droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. (Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, then touching their own mouth or nose.)

“We emphasize infection control as a best practice,” says Thomas P Sculco, MD, surgeon–in-chief at HSS, “and strive to maintain it at every level of patient care – from washing hands to a clean and safe environment for our patients in the operating room and the entire hospital.” In fact, the hospital has one of the lowest infection rates of any hospital in the country, and has been commended by the New York State Department of Health.

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Strategies used by the hospital to keep germs in check can be adapted for use at home and in everyday life, according to Finerty.

Here’s what you can do.

8 smart flu prevention techniques

1. Good hand hygiene using sanitizers.

What hospitals do: Hand sanitizers located all around the hospital have a sensor that dispenses foam without the need to touch it. The sensor detects hand motion and automatically releases foam.

What everyone can do: Carry around an alcohol-based liquid hand cleaner. Use about a tablespoon, rub it into your hands and let it dry. Do not wipe it off. Ms. Finerty carries a hand sanitizer in her purse at all times.

2. Frequent hand-washing.

What hospitals do: Hospital staff are instructed to wash their hands often. Signs around the hospital say: “Good Hand Hygiene Saves Lives.”

What everyone can do: Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds. You can sing “Happy Birthday” twice to get an idea of how long it should take. Work up a good lather and use friction.

3. Good ventilation.

What hospitals do: Laminar flow in operating rooms employs special panels to direct air flow and provide the most sterile environment possible for the patient

What everyone can do: Open the windows and let in some fresh air to ensure adequate ventilation. A stagnant, stuffy environment causes germs to re-circulate around the house.

4. Controlling the spread of germs.

What hospitals do: The entire staff is trained in infection-control measures, such as coughing into a tissue and not into one’s hand. Boxes of tissues are located throughout the hospital. Staff are encouraged to stay home if they have a contagious illness.

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What everyone can do: Carry tissues and dispose of them properly and immediately after coughing or sneezing. Then wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer. You can also cough into your sleeve to avoid getting germs on your hand that can later be spread.

In general, when you’re outside or at work, or if you have come in contact with a sick person, avoid touching your face. Germs on your hand get you sick when they enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth, or through a break in the skin. Don’t go to work if you’re sick.

5. Cleaning and disinfecting.

What hospitals do: HSS housekeeping staff is especially diligent about cleaning. The routine entails cleaning, sweeping and disinfecting surfaces, getting into cracks and crevices where bacteria can grow.

What everyone can do: Make it a habit to clean and disinfect surfaces, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. Be especially wary about kitchen sponges, which can harbor large amounts of bacteria. “When in doubt, throw it out,” Ms. Finerty advises.

If someone in the household is sick, regularly disinfect frequently-touched surfaces in the home. Telephones, sinks, toilets, counters, doorknobs and toys should be cleaned with warm water and dish detergent or with a household disinfectant.

6. Flu shots.

What hospitals do: All staff are encouraged to get a flu shot, and the hospital has a high rate of compliance.

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What everyone can do: Get a flu shot to lower the possibility of getting sick. It protects you and those around you.

7. A separate room.

What hospitals do: Patients who have a contagious infection are given a private room.

What everyone can do: When a family member is sick, try to give the individual a separate space or room, and maintain a sanitary environment by disposing of tissues in a separate plastic trash bag.

An uncovered cough can spray droplets and germs into the air, so ask the sick person to cover a cough with tissues. Try to stay at least three feet away from people who are sick and coughing. The CDC recommends having sick children place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face.

8. Diligence and good habits.

What hospitals do: Signs, staff training and hand sanitizers around the facility remind hospital employees of the importance of proper hygiene.

What everyone can do: Remember to maintain good practices and develop beneficial habits that will help keep you and those around you healthy.

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