Get Answers to the Most Popular Questions About Flu Prevention

We all have questions about preventing the flu — no one wants to get sick. So Staples asked Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona who studies the transmission of pathogens through the environment, to answer some of the most commonly asked ones this time of year. Here are his answers.

What would you say to someone who says, “I got a flu shot. Do I need to even worry about the flu this year?”

Well, the flu shot's only effective for certain strains of the virus — maybe only one-third of the strains that are out there this year — so what you always have to do is be prepared.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that you can get sick from getting the flu Dr. Gerbashot. Is there any truth to that?

No, you don't usually get sick from the flu shot. You might run a fever or you might be sore for a while where they injected you, but you shouldn't get sick from it unless you have a reaction to it, and you'd be able to find out about that risk from your physician.

Is February or even March too late to get a flu shot? Would it still be effective?

Well, they say it's never too late to get the flu shot because you never know when flu season is going to peak, and it depends on the part of the country you're in. It's already probably peaked in the northeast and the midwest, but it's still on its way up in the south and southwest.

A lot of people have heard that the flu shot this year is not as effective as it’s been in previous seasons. What else can someone do to add extra prevention so they don't get the flu this year?

Well, the flu is regularly transmitted by touching common surfaces that infected people may have sneezed on, or from droplets from people sneezing or coughing. The flu is transmitted fairly easily when you bring your fingers to your nose, mouth or eyes, and you do that about 16 times per hour — about every three to four minutes — without even realizing it. So what you can do is, use hand sanitizers on a regular basis. Wash your hands and disinfect key high-touch surfaces in your environment.

The flu virus can stay on different surfaces, like a desk, for a long time. How often should people clean their desk at work?

The flu virus can survive up to three days on surfaces, so you really should disinfect your desk area on a regular basis during the flu season. And anytime you go out in public, wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer when you come back.

What would you say is the germiest surface someone's going to touch during flu season?

Probably a phone in the office, because people never clean a phone. Then it's your desktop that seems to get really bad, and then it goes to the office breakroom. The first area we see in the morning to be contaminated with virus is the coffee pot handle, so one way to avoid the flu is to be the first one to get a cup of coffee in the morning, not the last. After you go to the breakroom, it pays to use hand sanitizer.

Where would you say the highest risk of getting the flu might come from? Is it when I'm commuting to work every day on the subway? Is it when I'm in the office? Is it around my house?

Probably taking the subway or bus. There've been studies that have shown your probability of getting a respiratory infection like the flu is six times greater if you take a bus to work rather than if you drive a car to work. So any time you take mass transportation, always wash your hands afterward or use a hand sanitizer.

Can I get the flu while sitting next to somebody on a subway, bus or airplane?

Yes, you can get it from somebody sitting next to you if they're coughing or sneezing. On an airplane, it's only the people right next to you, in front of you, back of you and on the side, because the way air circulates in airplanes only exposes you to those people immediately around you. Usually if I have somebody coughing and sneezing a lot on a bus or subway, I try to move my location because you can get it that way.

If I have a lot of meetings, should I not shake hands or embrace business partners, or really anybody else during flu season?

My advice is to not to shake hands during the flu season because you can usually find cold and flu viruses on about a third of the people whose hands are actually infected. Maybe bowing would be a good alternative. Or fist bumping. I usually say, “If you don't mind, I think I'll not do the handshaking routine.” But if you do shake hands, bring a hand sanitizer with you, and offer it to the other person too. That’s what I usually do.

Are there any things I can eat or drink that would help me stave off the flu?

Not really. Of course, we know that good nutrition and lifestyle reduce your risk of getting seriously ill, but I can't say there's any one thing you can do. Orange juice and tea will make you feel better, but they aren’t going to prevent you from getting the flu. Same thing is true of chicken noodle soup; it feels good going down, but that's about all it's doing for you.

We all know we have to wash our hands often. Is there a better, more effective way to do it?

It’s recommended that you lather up and wash your hands for about 15 to 20 seconds, making sure you get in between your fingers and your palm.

Which is better: washing your hands or using hand sanitizer?

Well, I myself don't like going to the restroom all the time to wash my hands, so I tend to use the hand sanitizer. I'm always in favor of hand sanitizers. They're very effective. It's been shown that they reduce your probability of getting an infection by 30 percent to 50 percent in addition to washing hands, so that's a good option.

Am I more susceptible to the flu if I live in the northeast or some other cold area versus if I'm in the southern part of the country where it’s warmer?

It doesn't matter where you live. Even people in the tropics get the flu.

Then why is flu season during the winter time?

Usually you see more of the flu in the winter time because it's dryer indoors and the flu virus survives better in the air and on surfaces that you touch. And so the reason it's more common in the winter is people spend more time inside closer together. In the tropics, you tend to get flu mostly in the dry season when it's drier.

Does going outside in the winter without a coat on increase my chances of getting the flu?

No. Studies over the years haven't really shown that getting cold increases your risk of getting the flu. Believe it or not, they made people sit out in the cold and see if they get a cold more often. They don’t.

Check out our conversation with Dr. Gerba about what to do if you get sick this flu season.

This information is provided for general informational purposes only, and should not be considered as offering individualized medical advice.

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