At this time last year, I was lying in bed, unable to move, my thoughts feverishly turning to “Star Wars,” desperately trying to summon the Force to make my kids a sandwich for dinner. My mind was not any stronger than my body, unfortunately, and I couldn’t will that food into being. I had to drag myself into the kitchen, bent in half, and with sweaty palms slather some mayo on bread.
My skin hurt, a thousand needles going through it with each passing moment. My hair hurt. The thought of rolling over in bed nauseated me, and I couldn’t breathe without intense shivers wracking my body.
For the first time in my 31 years of life, I had the flu.
Four days in, I realized I wasn’t getting any better, and I had to bring my 6-year-old twins to the doctor’s office with me. I could hardly walk, let alone drive, but we made the short, treacherous trip intact.
It was too late. Tamiflu and other medications that relieve the intensity of the flu and shorten the recovery time work best within the first 48 hours. I’d let it go too long. There was nothing the doctor could do for me aside from treating the symptoms. I was told to wait it out and come back if I started having difficulty breathing.
People don’t realize how dangerous the influenza virus can be. Sure, on an intellectual level, they know other people die or are hospitalized fighting for their lives, but it just doesn’t create the panic that, say, Ebola does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus kills from 3,000 people in some years to as many as 49,000. Meanwhile, Ebola has killed more than 8,000, with more than 21,000 cases of the illness reported worldwide. We’re somehow able to compartmentalize influenza. Oh, that happens to other people. Not to us. Until it does.
According to germ specialist Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, we go through a flu epidemic every year.
“In order to be considered epidemic, a disease has to reach a 7 percent infection rate,” Gerba said. This year, we hit flu epidemic levels in early January, he said, but that level is reached by March in most years.
The flu can be spread through the air up to six feet away from an infected person, according to the CDC. The virus is contagious up to a full day before symptoms become apparent, and it remains so for five to seven days after the first symptoms show. With a virus that infectious, it’s no wonder that it rages over the world each year.
“Everyone thinks of the bathroom as the epicenter for viruses, but the truth is, the break room represents a bigger threat,” said Gerba, whose studies have shown that the common room’s coffee pot is one of the main culprits in spreading germs. “Get your coffee before you go to the bathroom. Men’s peak time is 10 a.m. and women’s is 11 a.m. Make sure you get your coffee before then, and wash your hands.”
Gerba also lists the microwave and sink in the break room as major players in the spread of illness. To avoid the flu this year, he also advises against eating lunch at your desk (because the crumbs become breeding grounds for germs). Wipe down your keyboard, telephone and desktop frequently with bleach wipes, and use hand sanitizer when you can’t step away to wash.
According to Gerba, a third of all office surfaces are contaminated during the cold and flu season. It’s also not too late to get the flu vaccine, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Flu season lasts well into April and May, so a January shot may help protect people from catching the virus on the tail end.
Practicing good hygiene seems like a solution unnecessary to tout because it’s so obvious, but many people simply don’t do it. If everyone did better at washing their hands and wiping down their work areas, the spread of viruses in the workplace would diminish by 90 percent, according to Gerba. And absenteeism rates would drop by 20 to 50 percent.
And don’t underestimate the flu. I got off lightly. Although I was debilitated for 10 days, unable to perform my daily tasks or even get out of bed, I had no complications.
Just the year before, my mother and stepfather developed pneumonia after catching the flu and landed in the hospital, fighting for their lives as their lungs filled with fluid. They recovered. I recovered. But not everybody does.
The flu is a serious virus. Nineteen children died from flu-related illness during one week in January, the CDC reported, bringing the total for this flu season to 61.
Take precautions. Stay home when you’re sick. Stay alive.
Cunha is a freelance writer.