Stay Healthy: Tips to keep the flu, stomach bug out of your house
Posted January 7, 2015
Updated January 16, 2015
When Jessica Dixon, infection prevention project specialist at WakeMed, called me for an interview this week, I was sitting with my five-year-old on the couch, which was draped with what we call "the throw up blanket."
It's a big comforter that we lay over the couch when the kids have stomach bugs. It's cozy and ... you know ... protects the couch from any accidents. My daughter was convalescing from some short-lived tummy troubles.
"I could have used you two days ago, apparently," I joked with Dixon. Dixon, a registered nurse and mom of a preschooler, had heard it all before, especially this time of the year as flu season peaks.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services this week reported a spike in flu-related activity since the middle of last month. So far, 17 people in North Carolina have died of the flu - nine during the week of Christmas. More deaths are likely as flu season reaches its annual peak. The state will release more flu-related numbers Thursday.
A flu shot can help protect you from getting the flu, though it's not the perfect antidote this year. One strain of the flu - H3N2 - is not well-matched to the flu vaccine for this season. Nevertheless, doctors still recommend getting the flu shot, which can prevent hospitalizations and deaths.
Of course, flu isn't the only thing that's going around. Stomach bugs, like the one my daughter had, and other respiratory illnesses also are making the rounds in schools, workplaces and homes.
"From a prevention standpoint, avoidance is the gold standard," Dixon said. "Of course, school is back in and that is really impractical."
The flu is spread by droplet transmission. If somebody coughs or sneezes near you and those little germs get into your mucus membranes, you could get sick, she said. We also can pick up germs on door knobs, toilets, elevator buttons, shopping carts as well.
Some germs live for just minutes or hours. Others, particularly germs that can cause gastrointestinal bugs, can live in the environment for months. (A note here: While the flu can sometimes cause nausea and vomiting, especially in kids, its symptoms are more likely fever, cough, sore throat and body aches).
If you're going to be out and about, common sense hygiene practices can help protect you and your family from getting sick, Dixon said.
Here's what Dixon recommends:
- Keep hands and fingers away from eyes, nose and mouth. That's easier said than done with a young child who can't keep those little fingers away from the nose and mouth, she acknowledges.
- Wash your hands well. Water, soap and friction are key to getting your hands clean. That's why FROG, which stands for Friction Rubs Out Germs, is a WakeMed mascot. You need to use soap and water and really scrub all areas of your hands, fingers, nails and wrists to get clean. You should scrub for 15 to 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. It's longer than you think. "It’s the rubbing of your hands that’s loosening the dirt and germs from your hands and washing them down the drain," Dixon tells me. Always wash your hands before you eat, she said.
- Use alcohol gel hand sanitizer the right way. Rub it into your hands and let it dry, don't wipe it off. Rub it in like you're putting lotion on your hands. A caveat on hand sanitizer: It does not kill germs that cause stomach bugs. You need to wash your hands well to protect yourself from those. Be sure to always wash your hands with soap, water and friction when you are sick, have used the toilet, have helped your child go to the bathroom or put a diaper on your child.
- Be vigilant about where you put your hands, especially when out in public. Use a paper towel to turn off the sink in the public restroom or open the door. Wipe down the shopping cart with the cart wipes that many stores provide or bring your own. Cover your hand with your shirt sleeve or use your elbow to push an elevator button. Have a bottle of alcohol gel hand sanitizer in your car to use after you pump gas, for instance.
- Use your elbow. Kids have been taught for years now to use their elbow instead of their tiny hands to cover their mouth when they cough. But this recommendation extends to adults too. Cover your mouth with the crook of your elbow if you feel the urge. It keeps the germs away from your hands.
- If somebody is sick in your house with a stomach bug, bleach is best. Dixon said to be sure that the products that you use have bleach in them. For instance, Clorox wipes do not have bleach in them, she said. "I go around whenever anybody in my house has a GI bug with a paper towel and spray with bleach and hit toilet seats, handles, door knobs, light switches and remote controls ... that kind of thing," she said. Clorox wipes and other non-bleach cleaning solutions are fine when the flu or colds are in the house, she said.
- Don't share. Let people use their own hand towels or wash them very frequently to keep sickness from spreading. Don't drink from the same cup or share food or utensils.
- If you're sick, stay home. If your children are sick, keep them home. Schools typically have a policy that if a child has been vomiting and had diarrhea, they need to stay home until at least 24 hours after the last episode. If there is a fever, they need to be fever free with no medicine for 24 hours. Dixon said those are good rules for all of us, adults included, to live by.
"Having a preschool child, there’s so much I can’t control," Dixon said. "People send their kids to school sick. I can’t control what she touches and how well they clean things. Some of it is inevitable."
But Dixon said she sees results by keeping her hands clean and being careful about what she does and doesn't touch. The worst is saying no to her little girl when she's sick and just wants a little peck on the mouth. (Dixon goes for the side of the face. In my house, we give top of head kisses when people are sick).
"I don’t get sick nearly as often," she said. "Even having a little kid, I am really vigilant about what I touch. ... I feel like it makes a difference."