During flu season, your workplace can become a breeding ground for germs.

Research shows that the flu virus can spread throughout your office in a matter of hours. But the main culprit isn’t necessarily your sneezing and coughing co-worker. The quickest way viruses are passed around is when people touch and infect commonly used objects and surfaces.

This means the real germ hotspots in the office are shared items like doorknobs, desktops, the coffee pot, the copy machine, and the microwave. Flu viruses can last up to 24 hours on surfaces, so it’s easy for them to spread just by human contact alone.

The U.S. flu season typically starts in fall and peaks between December and February. Around 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the illness every year. As a result, U.S. employees miss about 17 million workdays each flu season at an estimated cost of $7 billion a year in sick days and lost labor time.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll have complete protection from the virus in the workplace. But there are several simple steps you can take to lower your risk of catching and spreading the flu.

There are many ways to prevent yourself from getting the flu in the first place.

  • Getting your flu shot is the best and most effective way to protect yourself against the flu. Find out if your employer is hosting a flu vaccination clinic in your office. If not, check your local pharmacy or doctor’s office.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use paper towels to dry your hands instead of a communal towel. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze if you’re sick. Throw the used tissue in the trash and wash your hands. Avoid shaking hands or touching common surfaces like the copy machine.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used items like your keyboard, mouse, and phone with an anti-bacterial solution.
  • Stay home if you feel ill. You’re most contagious in the first three to four days after the onset of your symptoms.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth since germs are often spread this way.
  • Boost your immune system by eating healthy foods and getting a good night’s sleep.

Symptoms of the flu may include:

  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • fever (in some cases)
  • diarrhea and vomiting (in some cases)

You may be able to spread the flu virus a day before you even notice symptoms. You’ll also remain contagious for up to five to seven days after becoming ill.

People who are considered to have a high risk of complications from the flu include:

  • young children, especially those under age 2
  • pregnant women or women who are up to two weeks postpartum
  • adults who are at least 65 years old
  • people with chronic medical conditions like asthma and heart disease
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • people with Native American (American Indian or Alaska Native) ancestry
  • people with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 40

If you fall into one of these categories, you should contact your doctor as soon as you develop symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends antiviral treatment within two days after the onset of your illness.

Those who are treated within this timeframe usually experience less severe symptoms. The medication also tends to shorten illness duration by about one day.

Some complications of the flu can be mild, such as sinus and ear infections. Others can be serious and life-threatening, such as pneumonia.

Most flu symptoms typically subside within one week. But you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience the following warning signs:

  • trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • symptoms that get better, then return and worsen

Most people who get sick with the flu won’t need medical care or antiviral drugs. You can simply rest, drink a lot of fluids, and take over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to lower fever and treat aches and pains.

To prevent the spread of the virus, you should also avoid contact with other people. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has gone down without having to take fever-reducing medication.

If you’re at a greater risk for complications from the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs as a treatment option. These medications can lessen the symptoms and shorten the time you’re ill if taken within two days of becoming sick.

The best way to protect yourself from catching the flu in the workplace is to get a flu vaccine every year. Getting the flu vaccine can lower your risk of being hospitalized from the flu by about 40 percent.

Practicing simple measures such as washing hands often and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces can also reduce the spread of the virus at the office. In one study, after adopting these routines, the risk of infection in an office environment dropped below 10 percent.

Also, make sure to use your sick days if you come down with the flu so you don’t put your co-workers at risk of catching the virus.