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Published on December 29, 2016

Don’t let the Super Bowl flu tackle you

Don’t let the Super Bowl flu tackle you

The good news is that the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl again. The bad news is, you could end up with the flu.

Flu deaths rise in cities where the hometown football team makes it to the Super Bowl, according to a study released last winter.

The “increased socialization” when a team is successful is behind the increased flu risk, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Nicholas Sanders, an assistant professor of economics in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.

“You have friends over for a Super Bowl party [or] you all go out to a bar to watch the game,” Sanders said in a press release about the study. “A bunch of people are cramped in a small space, and they’re all touching the same napkins and grabbing the same chips. It’s that kind of disease transmission that we think might be a driving factor.”

Getting a flu shot can help you stay safe at a Super Bowl bash, but be sure to get the vaccination soon, said Kathleen Kohut, the director for infection prevention for Cape Cod Healthcare.

“It takes about two weeks for the shot to protect you as much as it’s going to,” she said.

This year, the Super Bowl takes place on Sunday, Feb. 3, so you don’t want to delay getting your flu shot. Flu season can peak any time from December to March, so she urged people to get flu shots as soon as possible.

Staying Flu-Free

Keeping yourself safe from the flu is tricky, Kohut said.

“The crux of the problem with flu is that you don’t get sick and then start shedding the virus,” she said. “You start shedding it before you even know you’re sick. Every single person at that party could be perfectly fine and the next day someone will get hit with the flu – and everybody at that party was exposed to that person’s flu virus.”

The study co-authored by Sanders, “Success Is Something to Sneeze At: Influenza Mortality in Cities that Participate in the Super Bowl,” was published in the winter 2016 issue of American Journal of Health Economics.

The researchers examined data from 1974 to 2009, comparing areas from cities with a team in the Super Bowl with other cities. They found that the Super Bowl cities had an 18 percent spike in flu-related deaths among people above the age of 65 (an age group that is vulnerable to the flu).

“It needn’t be a direct leap, where an older person is at a bar watching the team,” said Sanders. “It could be that individual’s relative is at a bar and then he visits his parents. Or a worker at a retirement home goes out to get a drink and celebrate her team’s win, and then returns to work the next day. Those are all possible disease transmissions.”

When it comes to health hazards when your team is successful, nothing is more important than getting the flu vaccine, said Kohut. But there are other things to keep in mind. Practicing proper hand hygiene and coughing into your elbow are good practices, she said.

Other Winter Ailments

In addition to the flu, another risk in the winter months, is norovirus, a GI virus that frequently occurs in communal settings because it’s highly contagious, Kohut said.

“It spreads by eating contaminated food when someone doesn’t use hand hygiene after they’ve gone to the bathroom,” she said. “Chips and dip or vegetables and dip put you at higher risk.”

Remember the “Seinfeld” episode with George’s infamous “double dip”? The danger of the double dip is real, according to Kohut.

If you’re hosting a Super Bowl party, Kohut suggested avoiding communal chip and dips, either by putting out single-serving foods or using serving spoons and tongs so people don’t have to use their hands to get the chips and dip.

Also, remember that you’re at higher risk for food-borne illnesses when you leave food out for a long time. (See our article on “cafeteria germs.”)

“Hosts put out buffets and people graze the entire time,” she said. “But if you leave potato salad out for hours, you’re at risk for salmonella and other food-borne illnesses. It’s no different than the rules at a picnic. Your house is going to be warm enough to support the growth.”

Hosts also can make subtle efforts to be sure people are using good hand hygiene before they start eating, she said.

“People could buy hand-hygiene alcohol pumps and put it near the food or around the living room,” she said. “It seems a bit crazy, but that would be the best thing to do.