Facts about the Flu You May Not Know
Flu season comes around every year. And every year people are caught off guard about its causes, how it spreads and how to prevent it. That's a problem because influenza is no joke. The virus infects around 5 to 20% of Americans every year, according to the CDC, leading to lost productivity, medical complications, hospitalization and, in the most extreme cases, death.
You don't have to look far for an example of how bad the flu can be. The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the longest and deadliest on record, seeing more than 900,000 hospitalizations and 80,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
Arm yourself with facts about the flu you may not know for a healthier, better protected flu season.
What is the Flu?
You often hear about "cold and flu" season but the two are very different. Both are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, and both ramp up in the winter months, but the flu is more intense, more miserable and more serious.
Flu symptoms come on abruptly compared to the gradual onset of colds. While a cold may bring sniffles, coughs and fatigue, the flu packs a wallop that includes fever, aches and chills. Flu can also lead to life-threatening complications like pneumonia, bacterial infections, sepsis or hospitalization while colds very rarely do.
How is it Spread?
It's really easy to get the flu. Really, really easy. The disease spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, spraying an aerosol of droplets into the environment. These droplets hang in the air for a long time, eventually making their way into the mouths, eyes or noses of others nearby. Droplets can also land on surfaces—desks, computer keyboards, light switches, and door knobs--where the flu virus stays alive long enough for people to touch and then transfer to their own moist, warm mucus membranes.
Estimates say infected people can spread the disease within a six-foot radius. More upsetting, new research from the University of Maryland in College Park suggests that people shed, and share, the virus by just breathing normally. No coughing, sneezing or conversation required.
Feeling virtuous because you always stay home when you're sick? Don't! The CDC says it's possible to pass the virus to others before symptoms even start.
What are the Costs?
The flu is expensive in a variety of ways. Costs come from direct medical expenses, loss of earnings and lost productivity. US employees miss approximately 17 million workdays to the flu, according to the CDC, resulting in $7 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.
Healthline put together the following statistics from the CDC and employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. They found that the flu costs:
- $10.4 billion per year in Direct Medical Expenses
- $15.3 billion per year in Lost Earnings cost
- 17 million missed workdays for US employees
- $7 billion a year in Lost Productivity
And that's just for a normal flu season. The especially severe 2017-2018 flu season cost more than $21 billion in lost productivity.
These system-wide numbers are big, almost too big to comprehend. To put it in perspective, the 25 million workers who missed shifts from the flu in 2017-2018 lost more than $850 each in wages.
How to Prevent Flu
Getting a flu shot every year is still the best way to protect against the disease. That shot, however, doesn't guarantee immunity. So, practicing good hand hygiene remains very important. Washing hands should include five steps: wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry. If there's no sink or soap available a hand sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol is an acceptable substitute.
Proper cleaning is another important strategy for preventing flu. The virus can live on hard, nonporous surfaces for anywhere between 24 to 48 hours. It survives even longer in moist or wet environments like a locker room or shower. Porous surfaces, like paper and upholstery, are less inviting, hosting the flu for anywhere between eight to 12 hours.
The good news is, despite its destructive potential, the flu virus is actually very weak and fragile. Even the most virulent, pandemic strains are easily removed or killed by standard cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Be sure to choose an EPA-registered disinfectant and follow the instructions closely.
Pay special attention to commonly touched areas when cleaning for flu. These touchpoints include door knobs, light switches, faucet taps, bannisters, desks, elevator buttons and the like. Encourage the use of disinfecting wipes throughout the day. For nightly maintenance use a No-Touch Cleaning System to clean and prevent and outbreak. This technology removes soils and contaminants from a space completely, helping stem the spread of flu and other illnesses.
Click here for more information on cleaning to contain the flu.
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Amy Milshtein covers design, facility management and business topics for a variety of trade publications and consumer magazines.
Her work has won several awards, most recently a regional silver Azbee Award of Excellence.
She lives in Portland, OR with her family and Clyde, a 15-lb tabby cat. Once an avid hiker, these days she finds herself on the less-challenging -but-still-exciting 'creaky knees' trails.