How to Catchthe 2009 H1N1 (Swine) Flu

By Walt Larimore, MD

Monday, 5 October 2009

What’s the single most efficient way to catch H1N1 swine flu? OK, that’s a no-brainer. Having a sick person cough directly into your face cannot be a good thing. That gives you more than a 50% chance of getting sick. But if this doesn’t happen, what’s the next most risky thing you could do to dramatically increase your risk of catching the Swine flu?

The risks were calculated by environmental health experts Mark Nicas, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Rachael M. Jones, PhD, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and reported by WebMD.

Touching something contaminated with flu virus and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes with your unwashed hand gives you a 31% chance at getting sick, Nicas and Jones calculate.
Breathing in tiny particles left hanging in the air from a flu-infected person’s cough or sneeze gives you a 17% chance of infection.

Breathing in larger particles – which hang in the air for a shorter time – gives you only a 0.5% chance of getting sick.

The calculations are based on a scenario in which a family member is taking care of someone sick in bed with a type A flu bug. H1N1 swine flu is one such virus.

Can you count on these numbers to keep you safe?

No, Nicas and Jones admit. The calculations are based on many factors and situations – such as the amount of virus in an infected person’s body or the humidity of a room – that change from day to day and from person to person.

“As a result, we conclude that nonpharmaceutical interventions [to prevent infection with] a pandemic virus must account for all routes of exposure,” Nicas and Jones note in their report, published in the September issue of Risk Analysis.

They summarize the four easiest ways to catch the flu, including H1N1 swine flu:

Touching a surface contaminated with virus and then touching your face.

Breathing in tiny droplets containing flu virus dispersed in the air.

Breathing in medium-size droplets containing flu virus, which do not travel as far or hang in the air as long as tiny droplets.

Having large droplets deposited directly onto your facial membranes.

“More reliable information concerning these areas would lead to a less uncertain apportionment of influenza infection risk among the four exposure pathways,” Nicas and Jones conclude.

So, based upon these calculations, what can you do to not catch the Swine flu?

Well, first and foremost, be sure that you, your family, and your work colleagues are immunized with the Swine flu vaccine. After that, here are some basic steps you can and should take to reduce your risk of catching Swine flu or limit the spread of any respiratory illness if you are already sick:

Wash your hands. Washing your hands well and often is the best way to prevent the spread of any disease. How long should you wash your hands? As long as it takes to sing or hum “Happy Birthday to You.”

Cover your cough or sneeze. If you do need to cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue or, better yet, the crook of your arm or elbow, instead of your hands. This will greatly decrease the spread of any virus you may have.

Avoid people who are sick. Don’t expose yourself to people who are sick, especially those with upper respiratory viruses.

If you are sick, stay home. If you aren’t around other people, then you can’t spread the virus to them. Stay home as long as you have symptoms. If your kids are sick, keep them home even a day or two after they get better, as they can spread illnesses for longer.

Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes. Our hands are hotbeds for germs and are the most common way we spread them. If you avoid putting your hands on your face, you decrease your chances of getting viruses and bacteria into your body, which can make you sick.

Keep home and workplace surfaces clean. Use clean wipes on telephones, computer keyboards, and work surfaces - especially if shared with others.

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