This flu season has been marked by an early start and high activity across the United States.
For the week between December 30, 2012 and January 5, 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 24 states and New York City were experiencing high rates of influenza-like illness.
In comparison, the 2011-2012 flu season set a record for the shortest and lowest peak of influenza-like illness.
“Many people confuse the flu and colds, as symptoms are similar,” said Susan J. Rehm, M.D., the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
“Knowing the difference can be simple if you know the 'F.A.C.T.S.' F stands for fever, A is for aches, C is for chills, T is for tiredness and S, this one might be the most important, it stands for sudden onset. Flu strikes fast, unlike a cold, which could take days to come on."
With so many getting sick this season, it is important to help prevent the spread of the virus. “The CDC recommends the 'Take 3' approach to fighting flu: 1. Take time to get a flu vaccine. 2. Take everyday preventive action to stop the spread of the virus. 3. Take prescription antiviral medicines if your doctor prescribes them,” explained Dr. Rehm.
Taking those preventive everyday actions can make a difference in spreading the virus to others. But, as Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post and the co-author of the 18th edition of the Emily Post’s Etiquette book, noted, “during flu season, when symptoms such as fever, aches, chills and extreme tiredness suddenly hit, it’s easy to forget ones manners.”
That is where it is important to know your flu etiquette. “Flu etiquette is being considerate of those around you if you are sick. Flu is highly contagious and droplets from a cough or sneeze can travel to others up to about six feet away,” Post said.
There are several situations where the flu can be easily shared from one person to another.
“Since influenza can spread up to about six feet away when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or even talks and can also live on hard surfaces for up to two hours, flu can easily spread in close quarters such as classrooms, gyms, mass transit and in the workplace,” noted Dr. Rehm.
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If you are at the office, there are several flu etiquette tips that can help.
“If your client offers their hand to you after coughing or sneezing into it, you have two options,” according to Anna. “Shake hands and then go wash up, or simply smile and say, 'Forgive me, I can’t shake hands, but it’s nice to see you.'”
“Sick days were invented for a reason! If you’re under the weather, don’t be a hero — stay home. Even if you feel well enough to go in, it’s better to work remotely than to spread the flu virus and get others sick.”
If you are already at work and having symptoms, Anna recommended that you “let your boss know right away that you need to get to the doctor. Just let him or her know, ‘I don’t feel well — I need to see a doctor. I think I might have the flu.’ Better to have others pitch in while you’re gone than to have the whole team out. [To your co-workers at the office], say, ‘I’ve got the flu, and will be out for the next few days. I’ll call and check in, and as I’m feeling better I’ll work remotely and join meetings via conference call.’”
If you are the boss, you can also take steps to reduce the spread of the virus. “As a manager, say ‘It’s important to visit your doctor — it might be the flu. I want you to stay home — no sense getting anyone else sick,’” suggested Anna.
Many of us take public transportation to get to work, school or wherever else we need to go. Anna gave several flu etiquette tips when on public transportation.
“It’s classic good manners to keep your hands below your shoulders when in public. The idea is to avoid touching your face, which may also help keep you from getting sick after rubbing your nose, mouth or eyes with unclean hands.”
“When stuck in a tight, crowed space, turn away from others—or better yet, move away if you can—and cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue.
Keep hand sanitizer and tissues with you at all times. If you end up with a cougher or sneezer next to you, just ask them to protect others by offering a tissue or spritz of alcohol-based sanitizer.”
Flu etiquette can also be helpful in the classroom, and parents can teach them to their children starting at a young age.
“Teach kids to sneeze or cough into a tissue and throw it away, or if they don’t have one, into their elbow. Encourage kids to do so by calling this the 'Dracula Cough',” noted Anna.
“Once your child has been diagnosed with flu, be sure teachers and coaches know why they are out. Influenza is highly contagious. Viruses can spread through a sports team or scout troop in the blink of an eye.”