How to stay safe from the flu this winter

by Sally Blundell / 17 June, 2018

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According to research, soap and water are more effective at removing the flu virus than alcohol-based hand-rubs.

A flu virus can be passed on a day before symptoms develop and up to seven days afterwards. If you get sick, ESR public health physician Sarah Jefferies recommends:
  • Stay at home until at least 24 hours after the fever is gone.
  • Keep warm and rest.
  • Maintain fluid intake.
  • Wash your hands with soapy water and dry thoroughly.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Seek advice if things are not getting better – call Healthline (0800 611 116) or contact your GP.

Some viruses can live on surfaces for 24 hours. So, although they’re transmitted by physical contact or the droplets propelled by coughs and sneezes, if you touch a doorknob, lift button or supermarket trolley with viruses on them and then touch your own eyes, mouth or nose, you are at risk.

The easiest way to avoid this is to wash your hands. Soap and water are more effective than alcohol-based hand-rubs at removing the influenza virus and human rhinovirus – the cause of many colds – according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Medical Virology. Alcohol-based cleaners eliminate bacteria better, according to most studies, but alcohol doesn’t kill everything – and certain viruses and bacterial spores aren’t affected. It’s not that soap and water actually kill viruses and germs; they don’t. But they mechanically remove them from your skin.

The Harvard Medical School has four tips for good hand hygiene:

  • Don’t scrub: Scrubbing can damage your skin and create cracks and small cuts that give viruses and bacteria a place to grow.
  • Keep your fingernails short: Bacteria like the areas under your fingernails and long nails make it difficult to keep those areas clean.
  • Use hand lotion if your hands are prone to skin cracks: This is especially important during winter.
  • Don’t hurry: It is important not just to wash but to properly dry your hands. To do it properly takes about a minute. Wash your hands for as long as it takes to slowly sing one chorus of Happy Birthday.

In a 2012 issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, the Auckland District Health Board reported a marked reduction in Staphylococcus aureus infections among patients after it implemented the Hand Hygiene New Zealand programme and increased healthcare workers’ compliance with hand-hygiene regulations from 35% to 60%.

However, a University of Otago study reported in 2015 that installing hand-sanitiser dispensers in classrooms in 68 South Island primary schools to supplement normal hand-hygiene practices had no effect on absence rates due to winter illnesses. Yet at least one of the schools kept the dispensers because they believed these made a difference – if only to reinforce the hand-washing habit.

Other studies have shown that using too small an amount of alcohol-based rubs – one squirt – is no better than soap and water. So use several squirts. Ensure all surfaces of your hands have contact with the alcohol.

As Nelson infectious diseases specialist Richard Everts told the Listener two years ago, even if we don’t have definitive evidence about the benefit of alcohol-based hand sanitisers, at least they do no harm. “They’re reasonably cheap, not too big to carry round, don’t damage the environment and they’re not toxic. And it’s not like using antibiotics – bugs will never get resistant to alcohol.”

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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