Healthy habits key in absence of influenza vaccine

Hand washing, good hygiene may help avoid the flu

Regularly washing hands can cut the risk of coming down with the flu.
Regularly washing hands can cut the risk of coming down with the flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control website advises that the best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, a shortage of vaccine this year means many of us won’t be able to do that. No need to panic, according to David Tan, M.D., instructor of emergency medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, who offers common-sense tips to avoid the nasty bug.

“Hand washing, good hygiene and a healthy diet and lifestyle are important to general good health and keys to flu prevention,” Tan says.

A good night’s sleep comes in handy, too. Lack of sleep can weaken immunity and make a person more susceptible to the influenza virus. Stress can have similar effects.

It’s also important to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. The best breeding grounds for germs tend to be such warm moist areas. He also recommends keeping counters, desks and other surfaces clean.

“Influenza is transmitted by droplets,” Tan says. “You can get it by breathing it in if someone coughs or sneezes in your immediate vicinity, but people also can pick it up by touching contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs, keyboards and other frequently handled items. Then they infect themselves by touching their eyes, nose or mouth.”

David Tan
David Tan

That’s why hand washing is so important. Tan says soap and water does a great job, but alcohol wipes and gels also work. This year, many grocery stores are offering free alcohol wipes to clean the handles of shopping carts. Tan recommends taking advantage of the offer.

“The personal alcohol gels and wipes are nice when you don’t have access to soap and water,” he says. “They do a very good job of eliminating bacteria and viruses on the hands, and in some studies they actually do a little better job because they leave some anti-microbial residue on the hands for a short period of time.”

Beware that the flu can spread before symptoms appear, and people can remain contagious for a few days after they feel better.

Although flu shots are rare, FluMist — the inhaled form of the vaccine — still is available. But it’s recommended only for people 5 to 49 years old. Very young children and the elderly — those at highest risk for complications from the flu — should not use the nasal vaccine because it contains live virus and may not be safe for high-risk patients.

Low-risk patients who opt for FluMist can develop mild symptoms as they are building up immunity, according to Tan. More importantly, however, they can make others sick.

“They may shed live virus that can infect other people for up to three weeks after receiving the vaccine,” Tan says. “If a person is going to be around the elderly, the very young or people with chronic diseases, that person might want to avoid FluMist.”

FluMist also is considerably more expensive than a standard flu shot.

Another option involves taking antiviral medications after exposure to the flu. The drugs don’t help build immunity, but they can interfere with replication of the virus after a person has been infected. A pill called Tamiflu and an inhaled powder called Relenza both can shorten the duration of symptoms after people get sick, but the drugs must be used within 48 hours of symptom appearance.

Tan also says it is important to stay home if you get sick.

“People try to ‘tough it out’ sometimes, and although that may be warranted in certain circumstances, in general if you’re sick with the flu, you need to stay home and not infect other people,” Tan says.

If prevention efforts fail and you get the flu, remember to replace your toothbrush to prevent reinfection via germs on the brush’s bristles. And don’t panic. Although Tan says it’s too early to speculate about what kind of flu season is coming, he says if everyone takes precautions most of us will get through the winter in pretty good shape even without a vaccine.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.