Flu season is hitting earlier and
harder this year than last—and myths about how it spreads could make you sick.
For example, many people think colds and flu are only contagious after the symptoms hit.
Others go to great lengths to avoid
contact with anyone who has recently been ill. Why risk sitting next to a
coworker who has just returned to the office after a nasty bout of the flu,
even if he’s no longer sneezing and coughing?
Here’s a look at when flu is most
contagious—and the best ways to protect yourself and your family.
Since September, the CDC has
reported more than 22,000 cases of flu, compared to just 849 cases in the same
period a year ago. The surge of infections has prompted Boston to declare a
public health emergency, and a Pennsylvania hospital was so swamped that it had
to put up a tent to handle flu patients.
Officials are predicting a potentially
severe flu season nationwide, with widespread infections already reported in 41
states, according to the CDC. Drug
companies are reporting
shortages of kids’ formulations of Tamiflu, the leading treatment and
delays in shipping most forms of flu vaccine—making it particularly crucial to
take extra precautions to avoid catching or spreading the disease.
Like other viral illnesses, flu has
an incubation period before its characteristic symptoms—including fever,
chills, runny nose, headaches, achy muscles, fatigue, and sore throat—strike. During
the interval between exposure to flu and onset of illness—which typically lasts
one to four days—levels of the virus rapidly multiply inside the body.
According to the CDC, most adults
with flu can infect others starting one day before
symptoms strike. In addition, some people who are infected with flu don’t
develop any symptoms, but can still transmit the virus during the period while
it’s active in their body. That means you can transmit the infection before you
know you’re sick or catch flu from someone who looks and feels perfectly
Each year, 5 to 20 percent of
Americans catch flu, which is responsible for more than 200,000
hospitalizations and up to 49,000 deaths annually.
When Is Someone With Flu Most Likely to Infect Others?
Most adults with flu are contagious
from one day before symptoms start until five to seven days after the symptoms
appear. However, some people—including kids as well as adults with weakened
immune systems—may remain contagious for up 14 days after they start to feel
In general, the risk of spreading
flu is greatest when the person’s symptoms are at their worst, because levels of
the virus are likely to be at their highest point. Later in the disease, the
immune system’s counterattack decreases the risk of infection.
However, the infected person should
still be considered contagious for one week after the illness starts (for most
adults) or for up to two weeks in the case of kids and people with a weakened
Flu is mainly an airborne
infection. A flu carrier (with or without symptoms) can transmit the disease
from a distance of up to six feet through airborne droplets released when the
person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Other people catch flu if the droplets land on
their mouth or nose or if they inhale the infected spray.
You can also catch the disease by
touching something that an infected person has contaminated either by handling
it (such as an ATM screen or elevator button) or by coughing or sneezing
near the object.
What Are the Best Ways to Fight Flu?
The CDC recommends these three
Get a flu
shot. The CDC recommends vaccination for everyone age 6 months or older,
unless there’s a medical
reason (such as allergy) not to get the shot. As
I reported recently, a surprising benefit of flu shots is that they reduce
heart attack risk.
precautions to stop the spread of germs. To protect yourself and others,
wash your hands frequently with soap and water and cover your mouth when you
sneeze or cough. If you come down
with a flu-like illness, stay home until at least 24 hours after the fever is
antiviral drugs, if advised by your healthcare provider. These prescription
drugs can make flu milder and reduce the number of days you’re sick, reports
the CDC. Studies show that they work best if taken within two days of falling
ill, but may still help if taken later in the illness.