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Johnston: Practice good hygiene as flu continues to spread

Did you know the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30? Please know this should not cause panic in Kentucky, even though the coronavirus is infectious.

The immediate risk of this new virus to the American public is believed to be low at this time, and everyone can do their part to help respond to this emerging public health threat.

Something we should pay close attention to is influenza, which is active in the U.S. right now.

Clark County schools have closed today and Tuesday because of such a high rate of illness, and many of the surrounding counties have done so as well.

Already this flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates more than 15 million people in the U.S. have gotten sick with flu.

More than 150,000 Americans have been hospitalized, and more than 8,000 people have died from their infection.

The best recommendations for those who are worried about their health is to practice proper flu season hygiene, including frequent hand-washing, covering coughs and being vaccinated.

A flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and others against the flu. If you have not had your flu shot yet this year, it is not too late; the CDC still recommends being vaccinated this season.

How the flu spreads

According to the CDC, you may be able to pass on the flu to someone before you even know you’re sick.

People with the flu can spread it to others from as far as six feet away.

It is thought flu viruses spread mainly by droplets when people cough, sneeze or talk. It is actually less likely you will get the flu from a surface contaminated with the virus, as it will require you touching the surface then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

My two kiddos are in a play that premieres this weekend (if you’re not sick and want to see a great show, check out “Schoolhouse Rock Jr.” at Leeds).

They have been at rehearsal several times during the week and are sharing their space and germs with lots of other friends. This is a recipe for disaster considering people suffering from the flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins.

You may spread the virus up to a day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick.

You could be spreading yucky germs and not even know it.

Prevention

What can you do to make sure you stay healthy during flu season?

The CDC recommends using these preventive steps and habits to prevent the spread of the flu, and many other viruses.  

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (remember to sing “Happy Birthday”). This is the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of viruses.

Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Stay home when you are sick.

Keep your children home when they are sick.

Cover your cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

Clean and disinfect frequently-touched objects and surfaces.

It is difficult to tell the difference between the flu and other types of illness like the common cold. Here is a helpful chart, but as you can see, there is no real way to tell if you have the flu unless you get tested.

Wash your hands, keep surfaces sanitized and stay home if you do get sick to save others from getting sick too.

The groundhog promises an early spring, so hopefully the flu season will go away soon with the wintry weather.

Shonda Johnston is the Clark County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences. She can be reached by email at shonda.johnston@uky.edu.