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Health Matters: Hand-Washing: First Line of Defense Against the Flu

Health Matters: Hand-Washing: First Line of Defense Against the Flu

With cold and flu season upon us, it might seem coughs and sniffles are everywhere. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to prevent contracting the flu this season.

Leslie O'Neill, RN, an infection preventionist at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital advises families continue to take precautions well into spring, as the California Health Department and CDC have extended the official end date as April 13, 2019—as opposed to the end of March, which was the end date last year.

How the Flu Spreads

Influenza is spread by droplets. It can move from person to person, or via surfaces that one touches and then continues exposure by touching the eyes, nose or mouth. “The flu virus is spread by those droplets when we cough when we sneeze when we talk,” explains O’Neill. Typically, it can spread to others up to six feet away.

Some groups are more susceptible to contracting the flu, including young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases. Pregnant women, in particular, are a very vulnerable population because their immune systems don't work as effectively when they're pregnant.

Alternatively, no one is scientifically “immune” from coming down with the flu. “Some people think because they're healthy, they eat well, and they're not in one of these at-risk populations they have natural immunity. But, we learned last year, since it was such a bad flu year, that even healthy young people contracted the flu. Some even died as a result of complications, like pneumonia,” warns O’Neill. “So, no one is immune. What confers immunity is being vaccinated against the flu.”

Best Hand-Washing Technique

One of the most proactive approaches for reducing your risk of contracting the flu is washing your hands. However, a quick rinse won’t do the trick. The best wash lasts 25-40 seconds and uses soap and water. “You want to get all the surfaces of your hands covered in soap and rub the back of your hands, which is the most often missed part, between your fingers, a little bit of under the nails by rubbing your hand against your palm, just making sure you do a really thorough job, and then rinsing your hands under the water,” instructs O’Neill.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer can also be effective if you don’t have access to soap and water, but you should go through the same motions.

The other component in this preventative measure is that you need to wash your hands often. Pathogens can live on your skin for indeterminate amounts of time if you don't mobilize them off your hands. How long they stay depends on what's on your hands, what you've touched, and how often you've touched it.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of the Flu Shot

The flu shot is another viable approach to reducing flu risk—despite myths that continue to surround getting the vaccination. For example, the flu shot does not give you the flu. There may be swelling or discomfort at the site of injection or a rare allergic reaction, but statistically, the dangers of the shot itself are far less than the danger of contracting the flu and experiencing complications.

Another common myth people subscribe to is that the flu shot doesn’t work very well, so there’s no point in getting it. “It is true that the statistics vary from year to year in terms of how effective the flu shot is. We won't know until after the season ends, but experts are estimating about 50 efficacy for this season,” states O’Neill.

However, it's proven that even if the flu shot doesn't keep you from getting the flu 100 percent of the time, if you do get the flu, your symptoms will be less severe, the duration of the flu shortens, and the risk of complications from the flu are reduced.

“Again, with the flu season last year, 80,000 Americans died of the flu and its complications,” notes O’Neill. “That was the most deadly season for influenza in four decades, and those fatalities included the deaths of 180 children. Statistically, vaccination is still the best thing you can do.”

For more information regarding getting the flu shot, please visit

**To listen to an interview with Leslie O'Neill, RN, an infection preventionist at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, follow this link: