The best method for combatting the flu is vaccines, but some contagious viruses, like the new coronavirus, require more pro-active thought. Proper handwashing hygiene is an incredible defense against many contagious viruses, not just the flu. It may seem simple, and that’s because it is — but you would be surprised (and possibly grossed out) to learn about how many people fail to perform proper handwash techniques.
Even healthcare workers, who you would assume practice nearly perfect hand hygiene, are guilty of this. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 70% of health care workers don’t practice proper hand hygiene on a routine basis!
The numbers are even more troubling outside of the medical industry. 56% of workers have reported seeing their fellow team members leave a restroom without washing their hands.
Quick Info About the Flu
- Children are most likely to contract the flu
- People are most contagious in the first 3-4 days of the illness
- Roughly 26,160,000 people in the U.S. get the flu each season
What is the Flu?
Influenza, better known as the flu, is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can cause mild to severe illness (or even death). It affects the nose, throat, and lungs and can come on without warning. Common symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are:
- Sore throat
- Runny or congested nose
- Muscle and body aches
- Vomiting or diarrhea
The flu primarily spreads through tiny droplets that are emitted and transferred to others when those affected by the virus cough, sneeze or even talk. The flu can also be transmitted by touching surfaces or other objects that have the virus on it, proceeded by an individual touching their own mouth, eyes, or nose. It’s for this very reason that handwashing is so critical in the defense against the flu.
The CDC cited in their 2019-2020 preliminary burden estimates that there have been between 34M-49M flu illnesses in the United States. Between 20,000-52,000 people died from the flu last year alone. Over the years, the flu has ebbed and flowed in the number of people it affects — however, the epidemic nature of the virus remains.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) vs. Influenza (Flu)
Influenza “the flu” and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are both infectious respiratory illnesses. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Here are the known similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu.
- Both cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue; sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
- Can be mild or severe, even fatal in rare cases.
- Can result in pneumonia.
- Both can be spread from person to person through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking.
- A possible difference: COVID-19 might be spread through the airborne route (see details below under Differences).
- Flu can be spread by an infected person for several days before their symptoms appear, and COVID-19 is believed to be spread in the same manner, but we don’t yet know for sure.
- Both may be prevented by frequent, thorough hand washing, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying home when sick and limiting contact with people who are infected.
Differences: COVID-19 and the Flu
- COVID-19: Caused by one virus, the novel 2019 coronavirus, now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.
- Flu: Caused by any of several different types and strains of influenza viruses.
- COVID-19: No vaccine is available at this time, though it is in progress.
- Flu: A vaccine is available and effective to prevent some of the most dangerous types or to reduce the severity of the flu.
The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working on estimating the mortality rate of COVID-19, but it is thought to be higher than that of most strains of the flu.
You can find up-to-date information on COVID-19 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Proper Handwash Hygiene
Handwashing is one of the best ways to fight the spread of illness and keep yourself from getting sick. Washing your hands seems like a fairly intuitive part of your everyday life, but unless you do it right, you’re not protecting yourself against illnesses like the flu or coronavirus.
Germs build up on your hands as you go about the day, shaking hands, handling objects, or touching surfaces. Without washing your hands, these germs stay on your hands and can harm you when touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes. Furthermore, you can spread illnesses to others. Frequently washing your hands can help limit your own exposure, along with keeping everyone else safe too.
Washing your hands before handling food, eating, or handling contact lenses is essential. It’s also important to wash hands after preparing food (especially if handling raw meats), using the restroom, touching or handling animals.
Also, washing your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing can help keep viruses such as the flu from spreading to others.
So, how exactly should you and your employees be washing their hands?
- Wet hands with clean running water (warm or cold)
- Apply soap and lather hands and wrist areas completely
- Rub hands vigorously for a minimum of 20 seconds
- Scrub and lather all surfaces including wrists, the backside of the hands, between all fingers, and underneath fingernails
- Dry hands with a clean towel or air dry (don’t dry hands on your clothing)
Handwashing proves to be the best all-around, DIY defense against the flu. It’s a habit that everyone has been taught, but unfortunately, not everyone practices every day. To keep yourself, along with your employees safe from the flu — it’s crucial to relay the importance of proper hand hygiene.
Does Hand Sanitizer Kill the Flu Virus?
While washing your hands is the very best way to protect yourself and others from spreading the flu, there are alternatives. Hand sanitizers have become increasingly popular over the years, but do they combat the flu?
The answer is: Mostly.
Dr. Gregory Poland, an American physician and vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic, states: “Hand sanitizer contains alcohol or other ingredients. It basically inactivates the virus or the bacteria.” Similar to washing your hands with soap and water, Dr. Poland says. “You need rub hand sanitizer in for about 20 seconds before it’s truly effective.”
Hand sanitizer is only truly effective if there isn’t a mass of mucous on your hands (gross, we know). But, mucous actually protects the flu virus, which makes hand sanitizer fairly ineffective in these circumstances. However, if you’re trying to keep your hands clean and safe from touching surfaces or shaking hands, hand sanitizer can be a reliable solution.
To properly use hand sanitizer, simply perform the following steps.
- Apply hand sanitizer to one palm (see label for amount)
- Rub hands together
- Lather all surfaces of your hands, fingers, and wrist until dry
Providing the Right Solutions
While bathrooms are a standard component of every facility, outdoor work or events can lack proper hand hygiene options. Portable restrooms may be quite common for construction sites, carnivals, music festivals, or other outside situations — but many lack handwashing options.
If your employees work outdoors, it’s essential that you provide handwashing stations that they can take advantage of after using a portable restroom, before eating, or whenever they need to. There are both in-unit handwashing stations and free-standing handwashing station options, which gives employers a lot of freedom to ensure that they have handwash opportunities that keep employees safe from viruses such as the flu or coronavirus.
No matter what, it’s important that every employee has the right tools to keep themselves safe from germs and harmful bacteria. Proper handwashing techniques, hand sanitizers, and handwashing options are all available to keep harmful illnesses from spreading in your workforce.