The influenza virus, most commonly referred to as the flu, sickens roughly 13-20% of the United States each year. Symptoms can range from uncomfortable but manageable to requiring hospitalization. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized yearly, and complications that can arise from the flu include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of existing medical conditions like congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. In children, sinus and ear problems are also common. The very young, very old, pregnant women, and immune-compromised patients are at higher risk for severe infections and complications. Roughly 2,000 people are estimated to die from the flu each year in this country.
How the Flu Affects Productivity
The CDC estimates that the peak flu season in the US is November through March, when flu cases rise. Data from 2010 estimates that 100 million workdays are lost annually due to flu related illnesses, amounting to $6.8 million dollars in lost wages for uncompensated sick time. However, over 60% of employers offer paid sick time, which costs companies $10 billion in lost productivity. Studies also indicate that roughly 80% of those who contract the flu still go to work, potentially exposing co-workers to the virus.
Some of those workdays missed are not even for personal illness. 32 million school days are missed due to the flu, causing challenges for school-aged children and their working parents.
Transmission of the Flu Virus
The flu can be spread from person to person from up to six feet away. Experts agree that the flu is spread via droplet aerosolization; secretions made in a cough, sneeze or through saliva can land in the face of nearby people or be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, the influenza virus is spread through surface contact of contaminated objects.
The incubation period for the flu is about one to four days, during which infected but asymptomatic people can spread the virus to others. Symptoms can start as soon as day two, and the virus is contagious up to seven days after initial infection. Children are able to spread the infection past day seven.
The Flu and Other Viruses in HIAs
Recent studies estimate that at least 5% of nosocomial infections are viral. Perhaps not surprisingly, such healthcare acquired infections (HAIs) generally parallel changes in contagious infections of those in the local community. Pediatric and Geriatric hospital wards are more susceptible to seasonal infections like the flu. Because such patterns are generally related to community illness, as well as the potential for asymptomatic infections and repeat exposure in hospital settings, detecting and monitoring such HAIs can be difficult.
Preventing the Spread of the Flu and Other HAIs
Pedestrian as it sounds, the most crucial aspect of preventing the spread of viral infections is adequate hand-washing. This is especially true of health-care providers and clinic workers, but remains important for the general public attempting to avoid infection as well. Touching a contaminated surface, like a bed rail or a tablet screen is an easy way to spread the flu, though it’s easily avoidable as well. In the clinical setting, high touch surfaces include bed rails, supply carts, portable medical equipment, and as of recently also include portable devices and tablets. Electronic surfaces should be wiped down with disposable wipes containing appropriate disinfecting solutions, paying particular attention to especially high touch areas, like keyboards. Portable devices such tablets can be disinfected in the same way or though alternative approaches such as bathing the tablet in UV light.
If you’re home sick with the flu, chances are your time in bed has you surfing the web on your mobile device – perhaps even more than one device! The importance of keeping device surfaces germ-free applies at home, as well. Look for disinfecting cleaning wipes or sprays that kill microbes, and make sure to allow the disinfectant to sit for as long as recommended. If devices are shared with family members with immature or compromised immune systems, be aware that sharing your device could mean sharing your disease too, which can be riskier for the immunocompromised.
About the Author
Dana Carter, PhD is an academically trained, experimental neuroscientist. Currently, Dana is a science writer who focuses on different aspects of psychology, physiology, and overall health and wellness. Prior to her current role, she spent a combined seven years researching the genetic components of mental illnesses, and the effects of drugs and alcohol on fetal brain development. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience and her B.Sc. in Psychology from Texas A&M University. She enjoys traveling, writing, and promoting learning about healthy, active minds and lifestyles.
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