It happens all the time: one family member gets the flu, and before you know it everyone else has it, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu germs can spread even before symptoms appear, and you can infect others up to a week after you first become sick. But by practicing a few simple rules at home, you can help keep your family well and prevent the flu from spreading. Here's what to do:
1. Get vaccinated
Health experts say it's the single most important thing you can do to prevent the flu. There are two types of seasonal flu vaccine—the flu shot, which is approved for people six months and older, including those who have chronic health conditions; and the nasal spray vaccine, which is approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49 and women under 50 who are not pregnant. Schedule your family's vaccinations in the fall, preferably in October or November.
2. Cover coughs and sneezes
Flu germs are believed to spread through droplets from the mouth and nose. Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze and throw it away afterward; if there's no tissue handy, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. Help your kids practice, too.
3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
Experts say flu germs can live up to two hours or longer on hard surfaces. That's why it's so easy to pick up flu germs without knowing it—you touch an infected door knob or light switch, then rub your eyes or bite your nails, and boom!—you're infected. Learning to keep your hands away from your face can be tough, especially for children, but remind them (and yourself) often.
4. Wash your hands often
Use soap and warm water and scrub for a good 20 seconds, or long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Stock up on alcohol-based hand sanitizers for areas where sinks aren't available. Remind kids to wash up each time they use the bathroom, before they eat, and after they come home from school or a play date. Remember to set a good example, too.
5. Limit contact
If someone in your family does get sick, they should stay home to prevent the flu from spreading. Try to limit close contact as much as you can— change sleeping arrangements, if possible, and avoid sharing washcloths, towels, dishes, toys, and utensils.
6. Clean house
Flu germs and viruses love to lurk on kitchen sponges, dishcloths, cutting boards, home desks, bathroom and kitchen floors, sinks, and toilets. Clean and disinfect these hot spots regularly. You can microwave your kitchen sponge for two minutes to zap germs—or better yet, throw it out.
If someone in your household has the flu, take special care in washing their things. Wash dishes and silverware thoroughly by hand or in the dishwasher. You don't have to do a sick person's laundry separately, but try to avoid scooping up an armload of items and holding them close before washing them. Use laundry soap and dry on a hot setting. Always wash your hands immediately after handling dirty laundry.
7. Practice healthy habits.
Don't forget the power of a healthy lifestyle to fight off sickness. Getting plenty of sleep, eating well, drinking lots of fluids, exercising, and managing stress can go far in keeping your family well this flu season.