Like just about everyone, I've had my share of questions about the H1N1 virus, so I dispatched Prevention's best reporters to talk to experts and find out the facts so far. Although there's certainly a chance that you'll be exposed to the germs (a recent White House report predicts that as much as 20 to 40% of the population could experience swine flu symptoms, with more than half of cases seeking medical attention), whether you get sick or spread the bug to others may be largely due to your health habits. Here are 6 simple health behaviors to keep you and your family free from the flu (swine or seasonal).
1. Get a vaccine
It's the single best way to not get sick, experts say. "No matter how well you wash your hands, you still have to breathe," says Robert Belshe, MD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and director of the vaccine center at Saint Louis University, which is conducting clinical trials for the swine flu vaccine. "If you breathe in flu aerosol particles-which are invisible and can travel as far as 10 feet-you'll likely catch the flu." That's why vaccines are so important: They prime your body to mount a flu-fighting response before you're even exposed.
This year, you'll need two different flu vaccines: one for seasonal flu, and a separate one for swine flu (which may require two separate doses, about 3 weeks apart-reports are still pending). Everyone can get the seasonal flu vaccine, but the swine flu vaccine will be preferentially given first to the highest-risk groups as quantities roll out. The first 45 million doses will be available mid-October. The five groups with highest priority, according to Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the NIH, are:
- Pregnant women
- Caregivers of children less than 6 months old
- First responders and health care workers
- Healthy people ages 6 months to 24 years
- People ages 25 to 64 with underlying conditions like heart disease and asthma*
*People ages 65 and older don't seem to be at increased risk of swine flu.
Have your children vaccinated and get the shot as soon as you can based on your eligibility. Some states will provide the swine flu vaccine through schools or community clinics; it should also be available wherever you get the regular seasonal flu vaccine.
2. Be Obsessed With Hand Washing
Even if you are exposed to swine flu (by using a germy pen at the post office, say), if you clean your hands before you touch your face, there's little chance the germs can reach your eyes, nose, or mouth, the usual ways they enter your system and start wreaking havoc. "Washing hands is enormously effective," says Wayne LaMorte, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. One University of Michigan study found that regular hand washing can reduce respiratory illness transmission by more than 20%.
The key is to make hand cleansing a habit. Aside from after a bathroom break, wash your hands with soap and water-or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer-before you eat, after being in crowded public places, like the mall, or if you've been near someone who's sneezing or coughing.
3. Teach Your Children to Wash WellIt appears that kids in schools are the ground zero of swine flu spread. Children ages 5 to 19 are responsible for the most transmission, according to a recent study in the journal Science. The probable victims: Their parents. "If a child contracts the flu, about 40 to 50% of her family will likely develop clinical flu symptoms," says LaMorte.
Teach kids to lather up with soap and water after using the bathroom, after sneezing or coughing, and before every meal and snack. (Stash a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in their backpacks; it's a good substitute if they can't get to a sink.) If the kids are doing a group project and share materials, tell them to wash afterward. Finally, show your child the right way to sneeze: into a tissue, ideally, or into his sleeve-not his hands.
4. Stop Nibbling Your Nails
You're basically inviting swine flu or other germs to infect you. No matter how anal you are about hand washing, let's face it-you can't park yourself in front of a sink or use hand sanitizer 24-7. That's where the avoid-unnecessarily-touching-your-face rule comes in. "Rubbing your eyes or biting your cuticles can increase viral transmission," says Aiello. In doing so, you give germs a more direct route to your mouth and nose, where they enter your body and start making you sick.
5. Keep Your Cube Clean
When was the last time you wiped down your desk or disinfected your phone? Chances are you don't remember. About 41% of office workers say they rarely or never disinfect their desks, according to a new survey from Clorox in consultation with Corporate Wellness, Inc. To add to the ick factor, that's despite the fact that two-thirds of people say they eat lunch at their desks at least once or twice a week. If your unclean desk harbors germs, you can pick them up (and get sick) while shuffling papers or answering the phone-and especially when you lunch right on top of them. To play it safer this flu season, University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, recommends that you use disinfectant spray or wipes. Schedule a standing reminder in your Outlook calendar to wipe down your desk after you eat.
6. Be Your Healthiest SelfThe last piece of the swine flu prevention puzzle: Make sure your immune system is firing on all cylinders. Scientists are still learning exactly how and which healthy habits bolster immunity, but there's clearly some solid evidence for adopting-and avoiding-certain behaviors. One good-for-you habit is sleep. A recent Carnegie Mellon study found that sleeping 8 hours a night (instead of 7 or fewer) can make you 30% less likely to develop a cold-a sign that sleep plays an important immune-boosting role. A well-balanced diet may help fortify your immune system too. And avoid unhealthy habits, such as smoking or letting stress get the better of you, which have been linked to decreased immunity.
More Stay-Healthy Tips From Prevention:9 Power Foods That Boost Your Immunity
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