How Can I Avoid Getting Swine Flu -- or Any Flu?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 01, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I avoid getting swine flu?


Expert Answers

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging.net. She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated. Protection against the H1N1 flu (formerly known as swine flu) is included in the 2010-2011 seasonal flu vaccine, so there's no need to look for more than one type of flu vaccine this year.

Even if you were already vaccinated for H1N1 last year, the CDC is recommending that all people 6 months or older receive the seasonal vaccine this year. That's because this fall's vaccine (like every year's vaccine) has been designed to protect against the three strains of influenza that the CDC expects to be most common this flu season. H1N1 is one of the three, but to best protect yourself against the flu, you'll want to be protected from the other two strains as well.

The vaccine is especially recommended for the following high-risk groups:

  • Pregnant women

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old

  • People 50 years of age and older

  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions

  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities

  • People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:

    • Healthcare workers

    • Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu

    • Household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)

Whether or not you're vaccinated, you can also take certain personal steps to protect yourself and your family from getting the virus that causes the flu.

Flu viruses, including H1N1, are spread by germs in saliva and mucus that are released when someone coughs or sneezes. Flu is spread easily from person to person; if you're within three to six feet of a person with the flu when they cough or sneeze, you can breathe in the virus and get sick. Flu symptoms show up one to four days (usually two days) after you breathe in the virus. Adults with the flu can spread it from one day before symptoms appear to about one week after. Children can spread the flu even longer after they get sick.

Flu virus can also live for a very short time on things you touch, such as doorknobs, phones, and toys. However, although the CDC currently recommends frequent and thorough hand washing to prevent spreading or getting the flu, some experts have pointed out that, so far, no study has shown that hand washing prevents flu transmission. Unlike cold viruses, which are known to infect people when someone touches a germy finger to an eye or nose, it's likely that influenza viruses need to get directly into the lungs in order to cause illness. That's easy for the flu virus to do when lots of people are coughing and sneezing.

Good hand washing is still important, though, because cold viruses do definitely get transmitted by germs on doorknobs and other surfaces, and colds can cause many unpleasant symptoms too.

If you suspect you have the flu, it's important to stay home and try not to expose others to coughing and sneezing. Wearing a face mask, whether you're the sick person or a family member, can also be helpful.

Occasionally, some doctors give anti-influenza drugs to family members to reduce the chance of transmission, a practice called prophylaxis. However, since there are concerns about the flu viruses becoming resistant to the drugs, the CDC recommends that antiviral drugs be used for prophylaxis only under special circumstances, such as for people who are immunosuppressed or have chronic pulmonary conditions such as asthma.