Coronavirus and the influenza epidemic have highlighted the need to be smart about our exposure to respiratory viruses. Two public health organizations — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) — stand out as credible resources for the latest news about these epidemics.
Respiratory viruses spread through respiratory droplets emitted by persons who are coughing or sneezing. People of all ages can be infected, but older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions are especially vulnerable to severe complications.
How do I protect myself? One of the first things you can do is to make sure you are up to date on the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine. Avoid exposure to people who have a respiratory virus.
The CDC recommends everyday preventive actions, including:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoid close contact with sick people.
- Stay home when sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
How effective is hand sanitizer? Alcohol based hand sanitizers can provide a level of protection, but the alcohol within them evaporates fast — and so does its protections. The application of sanitizer you used after touching a doorknob will likely kill the germs on your hand currently, but five minutes later you may not be protected.
Should I wear a mask? The WHO acknowledges that wearing masks might be useful if you’re sick in order to prevent you from sneezing or coughing into somebody’s face. However, they add that a mask that is used to prevent an infection is sometimes not very effective because people take it off to eat, they are prone to be worn improperly, and if they get wet and somebody sneezes on that mask it could pass through.
What if I think I have a respiratory virus? Symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The CDC reports that symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. If your symptoms worsen and you plan to go to a doctor’s office, call ahead and explain your situation so they can take appropriate infection controls.
SUSAN LOCKE, M.D., is the Healthnetwork Foundation medical director. She is board certified in both internal medicine and psychiatry, having earned her undergraduate degree from Yale University and her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College.