How Not to Spread the Flu

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 31, 2022

No one wants to see family members, friends, or colleagues get sick. That's why it's important to understand "the rules" on how to keep the highly contagious flu virus to yourself and avoid spreading it to others.

Mainly from person to person in droplets that fly out when you cough or sneeze. These tiny drops from a sick person move through the air and land on the mouths or noses of others nearby.

Germs are also passed along when you touch mucus droplets from someone else on a surface like a desk and then touch your own eyes, mouth, or nose before you get a chance to wash your hands. Viruses like the flu can live up to 24 hours or longer on plastic and metal surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and cups.

1. Keep your distance.

It’s easy to pass on germs when you live in close quarters, especially during the winter when we’re all indoors. Avoid close contact with colleagues, friends, or family members if you have the flu or a cold. Tell them you're sick and you don't want them to catch what you have.

2. Stay home.

If you feel sick, don't go to work. Keep ailing kids home from school, too.

An adult can infect other people one day before symptoms show up and up to 5 days after they start. You could spread flu to others before you know you're sick. If you go back to work or school within 5 days after your symptoms started, chances are you’re still contagious.

3. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough.

This goes a long way toward protecting others from your germs. Use a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Afterward, toss the tissue and wash your hands thoroughly to remove germs.

4. Wash your hands -- a lot.

This is the best way to prevent the spread of the flu. If you have young children, teach them to wash often with warm soapy water. Tell them to rub their hands and fingers while singing Happy Birthday to You -- twice. Once isn’t enough time to get all the germs off.

Alcohol-based hand disinfectants work great, too. Make sure your kids’ teachers have plenty during flu season. Keep some in your desk and car, too.

Wash or disinfect your hands any time you touch something a sick person might have handled. Computer keyboards, telephones, doorknobs, elevator buttons, faucet handles, countertops, and railings get lots of hand traffic.

5. When you wash your hands in a public restroom:

  • Run the water until it’s warm.
  • Get a paper towel and hold it under one arm (toilet paper will do, too).
  • Put soap on your hands.
  • Sing Happy Birthday to You twice while you wash.
  • Rinse thoroughly. Soap doesn't kill all the germs, but it does let them slide off under warm water.
  • Use the paper towel to turn off the water. If there isn’t an air dryer, use it to work the lever to get more towels.
  • Dry your hands and grab a towel to open the door as you leave.

6. Don’t touch your face.

If droplets from a sick person get into your nose, mouth, or eyes, you’ll probably get the flu, too. Remember, most people get it when they touch surfaces these droplets have landed on, then touch their face before washing.

7. Practice good health habits in general.

Get plenty of sleep. Eat a well-balanced diet. Take time to relax each day to manage your stress. And exercise at least half an hour 5 days a week.

The No. 1 way to avoid catching it is to get a flu shot.

You may also want to see a doctor about flu drugs or antiviral meds if there are people in your house at high risk of flu complications. This includes children younger than 24 months, adults over age 65, or people with chronic diseases or severe asthma. These medications really work to prevent flu complications, but you have to take them soon after exposure to the virus.

Show Sources

FDA: "Influenza: Vaccination Still the Best Protection."
CDC: "Cover your Cough;" "Good Health Habits for Prevention;" "Influenza  Symptoms;" and "Cleaning to Prevent Flu."
Mayo Clinic: "Hand washing: A simple way to prevent infection."

Bean, B. , July 1982.

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