This can spread faster than gossip in your office
Someone at work has the flu. He puts his hand over his nose and mouth when he sneezes. A few minutes later, he goes to the break room, creating a trail of germ magnets as he touches the door knob and the handle on the coffee machine.
You don’t have to be next to a sneezer to contact their germs. The flu virus can survive on a hard surface and infect someone else for two to eight hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Bacteria can grow and live on surf aces for days and weeks, sometimes months,” said Kathleen Kohut, the interim director for infection prevention for Cape Cod Healthcare. “Viruses are a more fragile but they can live for hours in the environment. It’s plausible that you can get sick from touching objects.”
University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, who’s known by the nickname Dr. Germ, did a study where he placed a harmless virus on a few doorknobs and tabletops in an office. “We found out that within four hours, over half the commonly touched surfaces had the virus on it, and half the people in the office building had the virus on their hands,” he said in an interview with Inside Science.
“The first object contaminated was the coffee pot handle. What’s the first thing you do in the morning? You go get a cup of coffee.”
The path is straightforward. From someone else’s hands to a surface to your hands to your eyes or mouth or nose.
But let’s not get paranoid, said Kohut.
“If we’re healthy individuals, we have an immune system that protects us from most things that we’re exposed to,” she said. “When you really want to be careful is when you’re around sick people.
“In a hospital setting, if we know someone’s infectious, we not only protect ourselves when we touch the patient, but also frequently clean and disinfect the high-touch surfaces in their environment, like their nightstand or bed rails. At home or in the office, that would be a logical thing to do.”
She recommended using cleaners that are labeled as disinfectants (not all cleaners have that property).
Good hand hygiene is always important, she said, and never more so than during flu season.
“If you’re touching your face or eating, putting contacts in, putting makeup on – all those are activities where you could inoculate yourself,” she said.
As for flu season, she said it can peak anywhere between December and March. Numbers have risen in the last week or two in Massachusetts and much of the country. “We’re seeing what looks like will be a significant flu season,” Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center, told the Boston Herald.
There’s definitely still a benefit to getting the flu shot now, Kohut said. “Even if we’re peaking now, it could be around until the end of March or April.”