Preventing the spread of flu in the office

Person sneezing
© Nikittta |

With winter almost upon us, flu season is approaching – and it is expected that this year swine flu will once again hit hard.

If the experiences during the northern hemisphere winter are anything to go by, swine flu, or pandemic influenza (H1N1), will likely be the dominant strain again this season – so it would be wise to start thinking about what you can do to help prevent catching and spreading this dreaded lurgy.

According to Dr Rod Pearce, Chair of the AMA Council of General Practitioners and member of ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, everyone is at risk of catching swine flu and vaccination is the only proven way to reduce this risk. Certain groups of people, such as diabetics, pregnant women, the obese and those with underlying health conditions, are at particular risk of more serious complications if they get sick.

Flu season typically starts in June, peaking between July and September, but can occur earlier. It takes two weeks for full immunity to develop after vaccination, so now is a good time to talk to your GP about receiving the flu vaccine, which you can get for either swine flu alone, or in combination with the seasonal flu vaccine. 

Typical symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, fatigue, headache, body ache, diarrhoea or vomiting, with a minority of people going on to develop more serious symptoms requiring treatment or hospitalisation. Symptoms that may require urgent medical attention include shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion and severe or persistent vomiting.

Should you succumb to the flu, it is important that you stay at home, rest and minimise close contact with others to avoid spreading your germs.

In the workplace, there are a number of measures you can take to minimise your chances of catching or spreading the flu during the coming winter months.

Wash your hands

Commonly touched surfaces – things like doorknobs, buttons (elevator, microwave, photocopier), shared computers, phones or books – are a primary way that germs are spread, with the flu virus able to live for up to two days on such surfaces.

Washing your hands often and thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds in warm running water) is considered the most important thing you can do to avoid catching and spreading germs. Be sure to wash your hands before and after eating, after you have used the loo, and after sneezing or coughing. Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly – your desktop, keyboard, telephone, shared objects like staplers – and wash your hands afterwards. Regular use of antibacterial hand cleaners or wipes is also helpful.

Cover your mouth and nose

Flu germs can spread through droplets in the air, so cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze – then throw the tissue out and wash your hands. If you don't have a tissue handy, it is better to cough into the corner of your arm than in your hands.

Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or biting your nails, as this can introduce germs to the locations where they can take hold and proliferate.

Keep an appropriate distance

Keep at least one metre away from people who appear to be ill or who you suspect may be ill. Cover your nose and mouth if someone sneezes or coughs near you and avoid shaking hands with others.

Lead a healthy lifestyle

A strong immune system is one of your best defences, so keep yourself as healthy as possible. That means eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water or herbal tea, getting plenty of sleep, exercising and minimising your stress. Avoid excessive alcohol and smoking, as they will compromise your immunity. Supplements such as vitamin C or multivitamins may also help.

If you’re sick, stay at home

If you are really sick, stay at home, rest and don’t spread your germs. There’s no point – you won’t be productive, will prolong your illness, and people won’t appreciate it if you infect them and bring the whole office down!

See a doctor

See your doctor if you have severe flu symptoms, especially if you are pregnant or have an underlying condition such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma or a compromised immune system. In some cases, antiviral medication may be prescribed.

Have a contingency plan

Make sure you have contingency plans in place in case you have to be away from the office for any length of time. Ensure that you can remotely access work emails and documents, and minimise travel and exposure with options such as teleconferencing or video conferencing.

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