Last week, I wrote that my daughter had what appeared to be swine flu. Determined as I was not to catch it, I still came down with similar symptoms. So did my husband, and my younger son seems to have a very mild case. None of us have fevers, but we all have raging coughs. I can't help wondering as I hack away in my office whether I'm exposing my coworkers—some of whom have asthma or are caring for newborns—to a very real risk of infection. Perhaps I should take a hint from a coworker who yesterday forwarded me a study showing that H1N1, the virus that causes swine flu, remains contagious long after those first few can't-get-out-of-bed days.
The study, published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that H1N1 is most contagious within the first three days after symptoms appear but that infected individuals could still spread the disease after a week. About 30 percent of infected folks in the study—cadets at the Air Force Academy who were infected during a summer mixer—tested positive for the virus even though they had a temperature less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (My temperature never went above 99 degrees.) And nearly 1 in 4 of the samples collected from the cadets a week after onset of their illness still contained live viruses. The researchers found that having no fever and no symptoms didn't guarantee that a patient was no longer spreading H1N1.
Good to hear. So how many people have I unwittingly infected?
I'd rather not think about it, and there's really no way to tell. Instead, I'm determined not to infect any others. I'm particularly concerned about my pregnant friends and my father-in-law, who has a chronic lung condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website gives a few tips to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. These include:
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water. Or use an alcohol-based rub if a sink isn't available. I do wash my hands a lot, but I decided to purchase antibacterial lotion at CVS to use at my desk and in the car.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. That one's pretty obvious.
- Stay at least 6 feet away from others who aren't infected, and keep interactions as brief as possible.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. This will help ensure the virus stays off your hands and off objects that you pass to another person.
- Stay at home if you have a fever and other flulike symptoms like runny nose, body aches, headache, chills, and diarrhea. You should remain there until 24 hours after your fever goes away without fever-reducing medication. It's still thought that the virus is most contagious when a fever is present.
- Wear a face mask if one is available—especially if you're around someone at increased risk of flu complications. I tried to get one at my local CVS, which was unfortunately sold out. My mother-in-law, though, snagged one for me today at her doctor's office. I put it on in her house to protect my father-in-law. The CDC says breast-feeding moms who are infected should also wear a face mask when nursing to protect their babies.
Bottom line: If you've got flulike symptoms, do your best to avoid close contact with others for several days or even a week. Skip family gatherings, especially if you know that certain high-risk individuals may be present: kids younger than 5 years old; seniors over 65; pregnant women; and those with asthma, diabetes, impaired immunity, or heart or lung conditions. While the CDC no longer recommends that we stay home from work or school until all our symptoms are gone, the agency does still have this recommendation in place for healthcare workers or those visiting relatives in the hospital.
- Related news: How to tell a seasonal cold from swine flu