Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

Have you touched your computer keyboard today? Turned a door handle? Used the break room microwave?

If you've done any of the above, you've come into contact with at least twice as many germs as are found on the average toilet seat.

A study done by personal health products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark (K-C) as part of The Healthy Workplace Project from Kimberly-Clark Professional (it uses a wash, wipe, and sanitize protocol to encourage clean workplaces and reduce the spread of germs) found that some of the most germ-ridden places in an office are the ones you may not expect. As cold and flu season ramps up, these common hotbeds of germ activity show how easy it is to come into contact with viruses that cause seasonal illnesses. The squirm factor in knowing that unseen germs are waiting also provides motivation to take preventive action.

Cleaning frequently touched surfaces is one way to cut down on the number of cold and flu germs that are passed from one co-worker to another, but the flu can be a tough virus to avoid even when a person knows where germs may be hiding. Not only can viruses lurk on surfaces touched by an infected person, they also can hover in the air.

Through tiny droplets that are created when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes, an infected person can spread the flu to others up to about 6 feet away. A person needn't be experiencing symptoms to be infectious; the virus can be passed on a day before symptoms develop and up to a week after a person becomes sick. Given the ease with which a virus can be spread, perhaps it's no surprise that flu season, which typically begins in October and lingers until May, can be an expensive time of year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly 111 million workdays are lost each year to the flu, costing $7 billion to $10 billion in lost productivity and medical visits.

According to CDC, the best way to avoid coming down with the flu is to get vaccinated. Beginning with that step, here the actions you can take to avoid the cold and flu bug and stay healthy this season:

1. Get the flu shot now. Don't wait to get vaccinated until outbreaks hit. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and offer protection. The shot, which contains an inactivated virus that cannot cause illness, is recommended for everyone six months old and older. People between 2 and 49 years old may be able to get the vaccination in a nasal spray that contains a weakened form of the virus. A flu shot is needed even by those who got one last year. While the vaccine's protection will last throughout the entire flu season, it does not last from year to year. In addition, the 2012-2013 vaccination contains protection against some strains that were not part of last year's version.

2. Wash up. Hands should be washed often and scrubbed with soap and water for 20 seconds. A handwashing survey from Bradley Corporation, maker of plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories, found that most people aren't scrubbing long enough; 57 percent of respondents estimated they washed their hands for only 5 to 15 seconds. To make sure you're washing long enough, sing "Happy Birthday" twice (to yourself) while washing and rinsing the germs away.

3. Keep sanitizer handy. Hand sanitizer won't clean hands that have dirt on them, but an alcohol-based rub can be an option if your hands aren't visibly dirty and soap and water aren't available.

4. Keep hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. Touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth brings germs into the body.

5. Clean up. Frequently touched common surfaces, such as computer equipment and telephones, should be kept clean. If you need to use a co-worker's equipment, consider cleaning it first with a disinfectant. Information about an office's most offensive germ hotspots can be found through The Healthy Workplace Project website from K-C.

6. Avoid close contact with ill people. Avoid shaking hands or coming in close contact with co-workers and others who may have a cold or the flu.

7. Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress, and eat nutritious food to be ready to fight infection if a virus invades your body.

8. Cover your cough. If you find yourself coming down with something, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to help keep germs from spreading to those around you. Used tissues should go in the wastebasket.

9. If you're sick, stay home. Avoid compounding the flu with a case of "presenteeism" — showing up at work but being unproductive because of illness. Staying home will help keep others in your office healthy. CDC recommends that workers stay home for at least 24 hours after they no longer have respiratory symptoms and a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more, or signs of a fever including chills, a flushed appearance, and sweating. Other indications that a person has the flu can include body aches, a runny nose, a headache, diarrhea, or vomiting.

If you do come down with the flu, get plenty of rest and drink clear fluids such as water or sports drinks. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve fever, coughing, and congestion, and a humidifier may make breathing easier.

A person who is at risk for complications from the flu, because of age or a high-risk medical condition, can be treated with medication such as Tamiflu and Relenza. These options, which are available only with a prescription, can lessen symptoms, shorten the time a person is sick by one or two days, and prevent serious complications, such as pneumonia. While most people who get the flu do not need antiviral drugs, everyone can take steps to avoid getting the flu in the first place.

CDC expects that 135 million doses of the flu vaccine will be produced for the 2012-2013 flu season. Keep the flu away by rolling up your sleeve for one of those doses and by practicing good health habits that can help stop germs from spreading.

Terri Dougherty is an associate editor at J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc. (, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm that offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. She is also the editor of J.J. Keller's LivingRight Health and Wellness Awareness kit.

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Seasonal Flu Information for Businesses & Employers,"
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs,"
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "How Flu Spreads,"
4. Bradley Corporation, "Healthy Handwashing Survey,"
5. Kimberly-Clark Professional, "The Healthy Workplace Project,"
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Business Planning,"

Posted by Terri L. Dougherty on Oct 15, 2012

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