Health

How to Avoid Getting the Flu at Work


Sneeze droplets can travel six feet. Instead of saying “Bless you,” duck!

Illustration by Andres Guzman

Sneeze droplets can travel six feet. Instead of saying “Bless you,” duck!

The guy who sits next to me at work caught the flu. Last week he showed up looking like he was auditioning for a NyQuil commercial. A few days later, he Instagrammed a photo of an oral thermometer reading 102F. Another woman a couple desks down is at home with the whooping cough.

Not that any of this is surprising. The U.S. is having its worst flu outbreak since the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Almost every state is reporting “widespread” flu levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both Boston and New York State have declared official public health emergencies. And only a third of Americans have gotten flu shots. The other two-thirds are probably coughing on you right now in the elevator or—if you take public transit to work—gripping the subway pole you just grabbed with their germy hands.

“It’d be great if you could just stay home for three months during flu season, but you can’t,” says Menelaos Demestihas, assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and an attending physician at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. “You can’t completely avoid people.”

The easiest way to prevent flu is, of course, with a flu shot. A new vaccine is created every year to guard against the latest and most virulent strands of the three types of influenza virus—A, B, and C—which mutate independently of one another. (The CDC says this year’s vaccine is 62 percent effective.) Health officials recommend that people get vaccinated in the fall so they’re protected all winter. Whoops: another deadline missed. Luckily, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there’s still time to get the vaccine. If you can find it—CVS Caremark (CVS) and Rite Aid (RAD) are reporting shortages in some parts of the country.

There are countless wacky flu-prevention methods floating around the Web. Newtopia.com suggests listening to jazz, citing research that it can bolster the immune system. But actual doctors say there’s not much you can do except wash your hands regularly and hope for the best. Sure, you can clean your desk with disinfectant wipes, “but it’s uncommon to get the flu from touching a surface,” says Demestihas. Jenna from accounting is the problem. “A sneeze can span six feet,” he says. “Every time someone walks by your cubicle and sneezes, you’re going to be showered by respiratory droplets.” That’s the medical term for snot.

If your profession requires physical contact, you are, to paraphrase Demestihas, screwed. Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, pounds orange juice and doesn’t touch airplane bathroom door handles. She still gets sick. “Don’t ask for a snack when the flight attendants are picking up trash,” she says. “All those cups we touch are covered in germs, and whatever we then hand you will be crawling with them.”

Surveys have found that about 50 percent to 75 percent of people come to work when they’re sick; they either can’t afford to miss a day or feel their jobs are too important. Demestihas begs you to not be one of them. “You’re very contagious from the day before you realize you’re getting sick to about four or five days after,” he says. “Even if you don’t feel that bad, remember that the flu’s really dangerous for certain groups of people.” That includes anyone over 65, pregnant women, and infants. “What if you infect your co-worker and they go home and give it to their baby?” he asks. So don’t feel guilty about calling in sick and then lying around all day listening to smooth jazz. Tell your boss you’re doing it for the children.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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