Jan. 25, 2011 -- Staying home when you have the flu helps reduce the risk of others catching the disease, yet a recent survey finds that 66% of Americans go about their daily activities even after flu symptoms set in.
The same survey, however, revealed a double standard: 59% said they feel annoyed when others show up with flu symptoms, jeopardizing their own health.
"It's quite a paradox," says Susan Rehm, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and vice chair of the department of infectious diseases at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The survey was conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
"We are clearly not practicing what we preach," Rehm tells WebMD. And our ''flu behavior" could use improvement, she says, along with our basic understanding of how flu is spread.
To help, the foundation has launched a campaign called "Are You that Guy?" that encourages personal and social responsibility by raising awareness of how easily the flu virus spreads.
While staying home with a cold is advisable, too, Rehm says it is crucial to avoid contact with others when you have influenza. "Flu is more than an inconvenience," she says. It's a serious disease, killing up to 40,000 people a year in the U.S., depending on the severity of the season.
The flu survey, supported by Genentech, part of the Roche Group, included telephone interviews in November 2010 with 1,006 U.S. adults, ages 18 and older, who answered 13 questions.
Among the findings:
66% went about their daily activities, despite having symptoms of flu.
36% thought they could get the flu from getting the flu vaccine, although that is not possible.
40% said activities that needed to be done outside the house took priority over their concerns about spreading the virus.
Most (68%) didn't know that a flu virus from a sneeze or cough can travel 5 or 6 feet.
44% thought they would be more likely to catch flu from touching something with the virus, such as a doorknob, although catching it is more likely by being around someone with it when they cough or sneeze.
10% of the respondents with a child in the house under age 18 said they had sent the child to school despite noticing flu symptoms.
Explaining Our Flu Behavior
Why do people go to work or school with flu symptoms? "They may be in denial," Rehm says. "They may not realize this is the flu and not a cold. They may not be aware of how it spreads, and there may be economic reasons."
To decide if you've got flu, Rehm suggested remembering the acronym FACTS:
Sudden onset of symptoms
"If you start getting flu symptoms, contact your health care provider quickly," she says. It may be possible to prescribe an antiviral medication to help you feel better faster.