Prevent Flu: Steer Clear of Sick People

When flu infects your friend or co-worker, how close is too close?

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 01, 2010
3 min read

You've heard them -- flu-sick sneezers and coughers at the office, day care, shopping mall, or grocery store. Avoiding the flu is no small matter.

So what can you do? One sure flu prevention tip is to avoid close contact with people who are sick. Anyone who is at high risk from the seasonal flu -- like young children and older adults -- should avoid crowds and public places during the usual flu season, from late October to mid-March.

The honest truth is, in a large environment -- waiting rooms, airports, supermarkets -- it's very difficult to protect oneself from catching a virus," says Robert Schwartz, MD, chairman of family medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "The last time I flew, the guy across from me was sneezing and coughing. I wondered if he had tuberculosis."

A good idea: Stock up on hand sanitizers, either gels or hand wipes.

When someone sneezes or coughs in your midst, you can try to protect yourself. "But covering your mouth or turning away doesn't really protect from microscopic airborne droplets," Schwartz says. "They travel through the air, and people breathe them in; they also land on clothes and hands. That's the mode of transmission."

These days, "people need to understand that they are part of the world at large," Schwartz tells WebMD. "They contribute to the spread of illness not only in their own family, but also in their community. People need to become socially conscious." That's especially true in the era of a potential swine flu epidemic.

Going out in public with young children poses its own risks, says Erica Brownfield, MD, a professor of internal medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Like many small kids, her own daughter has a "thing" about putting her mouth on the grocery cart handle. "Who knows why?" Brownfield tells WebMD. "If you're worried about germs on the grocery cart, most grocery stores have wipes. Frequent hand washing is really the best thing you can do, especially when you've been in a public place."

If you haven't hauled yourself into the office, even though you knew you had a flu bug, you're in the minority. "Presenteeism" -- when sick people show up for work -- is a real problem in American offices.

"Companies may want to adopt health policies encouraging workers to get a note from a physician excusing them from work," says Schwartz. "But most employers would be afraid to do that because absentee rates would go up. Some people would go to work even if they were dying because they're afraid of the boss."

People have to use common sense, he says. "A flu shot is a good idea, but it only protects you from a few viruses that the CDC has identified. I hear it all the time, people get the flu shot but got sick anyway."

In day care facilities and schools, it's equally difficult to protect against flu infection, says Brownfield. If one child is carrying a flu bug, everyone is exposed. Studies show that day care centers are prime breeding grounds for the flu virus with all that toy-sharing, sneezing, and coughing in close quarters.

Some viruses can live from 20 minutes to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks, the CDC reports.

For seasonal flu, getting children vaccinated is the best start. But what else can you do? You just go back to the basics. "Hand washing is extremely effective in limiting spread of the disease," says Schwartz. "Teachers may need to be reminded, and so do kids."