The cold & flu season is upon us, and our families are at risk. If we look at methods used by the CDC and other experts, it is clear that isolation (or quarantine as they call it) is one of the best ways to prevent flu infection. Before Junior brings home a bad cold or influenza from school, or Dad brings it home from the office, we need to find a way to avoid infecting the entire household. In the next few minutes you can learn how to prepare to avoid this contagion spreading to your household.
Isolating your home from contagion
The first step in protecting your family is the isolation of your household from pathogens (contagious microbes). This is essentially what health officials are attempting when they quarantine sick families, individuals or communities. The idea is simple – keep well people and sick people away from each other. This works just as well when they isolate the well as it does when they isolate the sick. Since we are avoiding epidemic disease spreading in our home, we will isolate the well.
Closing up your home is the first step in creating an isolated haven for your household to avoid disease. The most comprehensive way to do that includes ensuring that the house is sealed tightly to avoid entry of uncontrolled air flow that could carry insects, microbes or dust into the living space. While this provides powerful protection beyond that typically required by the CDC (outside of hospitals and treatment centers), it is not terribly difficult if you plan it in advance. We explain options for home air-flow control in our article on positive pressure ventilation. Whether you go to the extent of pressure sealing the structure or not, it is important to control the movement of people, insects, vermin, pets and materials into the space, as any of those could carry disease vectors into the household.
Dealing with incoming materials and people is step 2 in control of the isolated household. If we could have all groceries stocked in the home to get through flu season, and avoid the movement of people into the space, that would be ideal. Unfortunately, it is generally impractical except in cases of extreme, lethal pandemic outbreaks. The most comprehensive and powerful way to deal with the incoming materials, people and animals is a set of protocols for where and how to control the movement and decontamination of everyone and everything that enters the space.
Your protocols must be designed to work with your family, your life and your home, but to be effective they must allow essential people and materials to enter, but ensure that disease vectors are kept outside, isolated or destroyed. A good model for such protocols is a set of clean room protocols. In a clean room, everyone and everything that enters will often pass through an ante-room where people shed shoes and street clothes, clean themselves and gown-up in clean room garb before entry. Generally materials must similarly be inspected, washed (and/or air-washed) and disinfected before they can pass into the clean room. If a mud room or entry-way were used in the home, a similar protocol could require stripping outer wear, shoes or even pants before entering further, and sanitizing groceries or other materials there before entry to the living space. To be REALLY thorough, you may consider removing and discarding bags and outer packaging materials in the mud-room (or other designated entry control zone) and leaving them in trash cans there that never enter the rest of the home. Leaving shoes at the entry point is a no-brainer; in much of the world, that’s standard for homes and offices.
Since touching is the most common way of passing an infectious agent, contact isolation is an important strategy. Along with shoes, hand washing and cleaning of anything else at risk of contact contamination is a good strategy. When someone sits on a public bus seat, or brushes against other riders on a train, the pants or outer wear are likely to carry microbial passengers from that contact. Leaving those likely contaminated garments at the entry point may be a viable way to mitigate that risk.
How about contagion at work, school or shopping?
If someone in the family leaves your well-isolated home, you need a strategy for when they are outside the clean, isolated space, and when they return. No matter how thoroughly you clean them when they return, you won’t be able to fully isolate microbes that are in their lungs, sinuses, gut or blood. For that reason there is a need for a 3 part strategy to combat transport of flu or other pathogens in those returning to the home:
1. Arm the bodily defenses: Everyone in the family, especially those who will leave home and return, should establish and maintain a healthy immune system. This requires good nutrition, drinking lots of clean water, and getting any high quality immunizations that are available and proven effective.
2. Use mobile isolation: Avoiding contact with people and surfaces they touch, frequent hand cleaning and use of a mask or other barrier technology when you must be close to airborne microbes are basic isolation technologies you can take along on your journeys. Take care to make use of hand sanitizers, but understand their limitations; they work well on bacterial pathogens, but there are cold and flu viruses that are not phased by these alcohol-based treatments. Glove use and hand washing are the most comprehensive approaches to avoid viral infection.
3. Divide and conquer: When a traveler does return infected, quarantine them from the rest of the household. This may seem harsh, but you do them no favors by infecting all those who can look after them while they get better. If your home has multiple rooms, it makes sense to restrict a family member to part of that space, and keep that part isolated from the rest. While shared spaces like a common bathroom and shared systems like the furnace or central air require extra effort, isolation is still possible with some work, but it is not easy. For this to work, you must define rules and processes that support your local isolation quarantine. Strict adherence to these isolation protocols is essential when an infected person is in your home.
Clearly, life is easier and isolation is more comprehensive if people stay home, and shopping happens online or by phone. Of course, working from home, homeschooling and virtual social lives are not for everyone. If you can focus on care and attention to infection risk whenever anyone does go out, the chances of avoiding flu or other disease can be drastically reduced.
But what about pets?
Generally dogs and cats are pretty safe, in that they share relatively few common pathogens with humans. Fleas and ticks are another matter, though, as they are proven disease vectors, although not typically carrying influenza. It is probably a good policy to keep pets close to home, in a fenced yard, or indoors, especially during serious disease outbreaks, but it still is important to practice flea & tick control and to keep the home clear of mice and rats, as they WILL bring fleas into the home to potentially spread disease.
It is worth considering the fact that the famous Black Death pandemic that killed tens of millions in the mid 1300s, was spread by infected fleas. We still are not certain how new outbreaks of Ebola are spread to the population, but many believe that it is carried by mammals like bats or monkeys. I plan to keep pet-contagion risks in mind if preparation to deal with the next pandemic become imminent.
The Bottom Line
While a highly effective vaccine could offer a simple solution that is practical and flexible, few vaccines are 100% effective, and when it comes to flu, often the vaccines reduce risk by less than 50%. If that isn’t enough, or if you are concerned enough about other communicable threats, other actions make sense. There is one strategy that works with nearly all disease threats and is very effective, and that is isolation. If you live in North America, or in many other places, amazon and other on-line shopping resources can make home delivery a viable option so that household isolation can be practical. Even medical care can be accessed at home, as we mention in this article.
Isolation is a powerful, but challenging choice, as it demands a lot of the family, and it can be very restrictive. If isolation is a response to a pandemic disaster, and is a temporary strategy for survival, it may be easier to handle. We offer tips for dealing with it as a survival strategy in our post Plan for family survival in a disaster. Whether you choose to use a comprehensive isolation approach, family immunization or some other strategy, I hope this post helps you to decide and prepare.
In any case, please share your thoughts, questions or experiences with us below. We’d love to hear what you think!
13 thoughts on “Best ways to prevent flu”
Wow! Very helpful article. Last year during flu season i got it. I was sick for 2 weeks, never felt so bad. I was isolated because i have kids. Good thing is they are already vaccinated . But i still dont want to be near them to be safe. I change my beddings, i spray disinfectant all over the house. So after my flu, this year i got a flu shots together with my kids. The reason why i dont get shots because i dont like needles. Im such a coward. My kids always get colds and cough virus from school. So its hard to isolate them. But we prevent spreading bacteria or virus by leaving the shoes we wear outside and use slipper for the house only. Wash our hands as often as possible, and if no water and soap available, we always carry alcohol with us.
Thanks much for joining the conversation, Meliza. I’m glad you found the article helpful.
It sounds to me like you’re doing a lot of things right, from keeping shoes out of the living space to frequent hand washing. Using alcohol or alcohol-based gels is also very powerful for influenza virus, and it works as effectively as hand washing for avoiding flu. Generally, though, hand washing is better, because the common cold, norovirus and some other pathogens are very resistant to alcohol, many disinfectants and antimicrobial soaps.
If I were you, I’d concentrate on ways the kids can avoid contact with sick kids at school, or inhaling the contaminated air from the coughs or sneezes they release. That isn’t easy, but it’s worth a try. When that doesn’t work, in-house isolation is the best bet, so everyone doesn’t come down with it.
Flu virus is pretty wimpy on doorknobs and other surfaces – it doesn’t last long, and there is no proof that it gets passed that way. Bugs brought home from school or office are the usual culprits – avoiding those is the challenge.
Thanks again for sharing. Please join us again.
I grew up in a very isolated location in rural Alaska. Because of this location we never got sick while we were there! It was great. I didn’t spend my childhood sick all the time. I never got chicken pox either. When I was older I got the chicken pox vaccine so hopefully I will never get it.
The downside was that I did not get exposed to many illnesses and I got really sick whenever I was out in civilization. I guess there is a balance required. However, if there was ever a serious outbreak, it is nice to know we could still go back to the cabin and live in isolation as long as required! There is no road access so the only way to get there is by airplane and occasionally by snow machine in the winter but that is very difficult and long and depends on the condition of ice on the river. It is over 75 miles to the nearest paved road and hundreds of miles to the nearest city!
My Dad got leukemia in the 1970’s and was only given less than 6 months to live. He ended up living until 2014 and got married and had me along the way! Our isolated lifestyle was sometimes necessary for his health. I grew up understanding contagious disease more than anyone other kids I knew. While a cold was just normal for others it was a big deal for us and we did everything possible to keep Dad from getting infected. I knew I always had to wash my hands before touching food, never set my clothes or other items on the floor especially in public places, avoided sick people that were coughing etc.
Now I cringe when people come to work sneezing and coughing. I wish they would stay home! I seem to get every bug my co-workers bring in and they get all their bugs (by bugs I mean viruses of course!) from their kids or grandkids at school and daycare! It is a huge problem. Everyone gets whatever is going around the schools. I come to work and hear “My kids has hoof and mouth disease”…yikes!!!!
So, I greatly appreciate your advice here. I wish more people understood the importance of not spreading disease unnecessarily. However, there are many people who don’t have a choice and have to come to work sick since they don’t have enough sick leave. I do wish there was a better system in place in this country so parents could keep their sick kids or themselves home when sick!
Thanks for your perspective on disease and contagion in public vs. isolated situations, Jessica. Most of us never have the experience of that isolated cabin lifestyle, and it is great to learn more about it. I envy you having that option, but also being able to experience city life – clearly, we all have choices, but you have lived extreme ones.
It is frustrating that daycare, public education, public transportation and many other institutions work as Petrie dishes for the distribution of disease. I think you are on to something with your observations of the way this harms us all, and how it could be much better. I fault government and business decisions for ignoring the risks and costs involved in the flawed processes used to isolate students, daycare kids and workers from exposure to disease vectors carried by peers.
Simple policy changes by employers could improve employee productivity, reduce quality problems, improve morale, reduce net illness-related downtime and save money by encouraging and compensating sick staff to stay home. Work-from-home, sick leave, comp-time and other tools are available to employers to address this problem, but only if they try. It is sad that so many are putting the health of their employees AND the profitability of the firm at risk by ignoring this problem. What do YOU think is the best way to change this dismal status quo in business and education practices?
Thanks again for your great contribution,
I have to say, I am lucky. My job is very understanding and flexible when it comes to sick leave. They do let us work from home if possible and actually go out of their way to offer it! This is generally unheard of in most jobs in the U.S.
This is entirely dependent on the managers, it is not a general policy though. I work for state government. Some managers are sticklers and some are not. Some want you to come to work sick and some want you to stay home.
The only standard across the board is the fact that we accrue a ton of leave compared to most jobs. We get lower pay than comparable jobs in the private sector in some cases but we have much better benefits including very generous leave accrual. I accrue about a day of leave for every 2 weeks I work! So that is about 2 days of leave per month. We also have 11 paid holidays. So there is about 36 days of leave per year that is paid!
Many regular jobs only get 2 weeks of leave and for many you have to work a year to get that! Of course they may have separate sick leave. In the old days here before budget cuts and the state going broke, employees had separate sick leave also. We don’t anymore. However, many managers are willing to let us do flex time, comp time etc. to work around doctor’s appointments and sick time. I end up using most of my leave for sick time now due to my autoimmune illnesses and also work a different schedule. I am extremely lucky. Many state employees don’t even get the level of flexibility I do.
However, I think this sort of flexibility may be a good thing. It certainly makes me loyal to my job. I could have moved up and gotten a job somewhere else that pays more but I didn’t because it is such a great place to work! We also get great retirement benefits so while others are raking in a big paycheck but stressed and sick and don’t have any retirement savings, I will work a comfortable job where I am truly happy and save a ton for retirement!
This attitude is very different from the typical American job however. I know European jobs have more leave and shorter work days than in the U.S. I wonder how that works with sick time?
I have worked for an oil company, local utility, as a sub contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers, for Universities and in 5 positions for state government. I have to say a normal corporate job would never work for me!
I think healthier and happier employees would benefit companies and they should work to make sick leave a reality.
Great points, Jessica, thanks for sharing them. Sounds like your employer is a bit ahead of the curve but I do think others in business and government will catch up. The fact that work-from-home is possible and viable has been well proven at this point, and it is mostly a matter of adjusting policies to improve the health of the workforce. This is clearly good management practice, so I expect it to grow quickly.
Education is another matter and has further to go, I suspect. Schools have a huge problem with contagion and the classroom infrastructure packs students so closely that this is hard to correct. While nearly all levels of primary, secondary and college education have demonstrated the value of web-based instruction, there are big challenges in deploying it in every classroom as a way to offer flexibility for students who are ill and contagious.
Even if “study-from-home” is made available, it does nothing to deal with the ‘day-care’ side of pre-school and primary school for children of working parents. I suspect that schools for young children will continue to be powerful breeding grounds for disease for several years unless some catastrophe forces innovation to correct the problem by application of technology and new institutional reforms. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think that we should all plan for years of dealing with diseases that are mostly spread through pre-school, primary school and daycare. I’ll be very pleased if someone offers up a model for healthy early education that has proven effective for curbing this problem.
Thanks again for enriching this discussion with your great personal story and analysis, Jessica.
Please join us again soon!
Interesting article and discussion. Very timely too, in this cold season. Together with isolation methods, I think we can do quite a lot building up our natural defense systems.
What helps do it? Eating more vegetables and fruit, , doing physical exercises. Water of course. We mustn’t forget about benefits of the contrast shower, it’s a great way to train blood vessels, stimulate the blood and lymph flow.There are additional benefits, too-it contributes greatly to toning of muscles and skin beauty.
And of course much should be done towards improving people’s manners and behavior in public places. As a minimum people should restrain from going to shows, cafes, restaurants, shops, libraries, etc, if they are sneezing and coughing. Ideally (in an ideal society) it’d be good to stay home for a week or more if sickness persists and not to spread infection at schools and working places.
I wish everyone to stay healthy in this unhealthy season. Thanks for your article, Steve.
Excellent points, Vera. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, if we must venture out into the public germ exchange, better immune system function is a great asset. The power of drinking lots of water, good nutrition and proper exercise is clear, and it’s great to mention it.
The contrast shower is interesting to me, and I’m less familiar with it. I’ve tried something similar – warm shower followed by two minutes or more of cold shower, and it is invigorating and possibly healthy, but I’ve not seen compelling evidence of health benefits. Is the contrast shower something you’ve personal experience with, or know of other arguments supporting the effectiveness?
I agree that there are problems with human behavior in public places that show little respect for the health of others, as well as employment and education policies that encourage such behavior. Institutional change is needed to address these issues IMHO, which is why I suggest isolation. Improved immune function is a great idea, but it might not be enough to protect us from a new pandemic flu or lethal diseases like SARS or smallpox. When we are faced with such life-threatening risks I believe there is value in having a backup plan. The best backup plan I know is the one CDC organizations depend on – isolation.
Thanks again for your input on this discussion. Clearly, most of us need other alternatives than isolation much of the time.
Please visit with us again soon, Vera.
Thanks, Steve. Here’s my blog in which I’ve written quite a lot about water in general and the contrast shower, in particular.:)
Thanks Vera – great information; your blog post is powerful! I’m eager to get back into cold-water treatments, and try the contrast shower in particular. I am still looking for those detailed study results, though. I struggle with doing these uncomfortable things over and over without validation that I’m using the correct process.
Thanks a heap, Jessica! These seem like great additional tools for jet lag sufferers. Not me, as I generally head it off on the plane, but not everyone can handle that approach. I bet some enterprising clinics or hospitals could offer a hyperbaric & IV treatment package for well heeled travelers and cash in! That might even be a nice value-added feature for Medical Tourism businesses.
I’m eager to read Pernilla’s take on this…
Thanks again for your great contribution to the topic,
Very interesting reading. My wife and I are both just recovering from bad colds so it’s pretty topical for me.
Colds always affect me more than most, as I have weak lungs. I’m not really sure why, possibly from years of hayfever affliction. What starts as a sore throat and sniffle always ends up as chronic, nagging cough.
Thanks for this article, I learned a few things, which is why I visited in the first place.
Glad to help. I tended to get bronchitis for years myself, but not for the past decade. I think more sleep and healthier eating may have made a difference, but probably avoiding frequent contact with kids or parents of kids in school was a bigger factor. Isolation from major opportunities for contagion can make life easier on respiratory infections, and schools are high on the list of ‘opportunities’.
Where (or who) do you suspect is the source of most of your colds? I hope you and your wife get through this season without getting the current fast moving flu. It’s a rough one.
Thanks for joining the conversation,