Why the flu spreads so easily in hospitals

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Why the flu spreads so easily in hospitals

Being in hospital can be daunting at the best of times. But if you’re unfortunate enough to be hospitalised during a flu outbreak, the experience can be a lonely one – especially if you have or catch the flu yourself.

Let’s take a look at how the flu spreads from one person to another, and what that means if you’re ever hospitalised with the flu.

How the flu spreads

The flu virus is highly contagious (1). Someone infected can easily pass it to you when they cough or sneeze (1). If they don’t cover their mouth and nose, droplets coming from them can infect you if you are less than two meters away from them (2).

You can also catch it by touching a contaminated surface and then putting your fingers in your mouth or nose, or near your eyes (3). After all, the flu virus can live on a soft surface for around 20 minutes and a hard surface for up to 24 hours (1).

Any smaller particles coming from an infected person when they cough or sneeze can hang around in the air for longer than the larger droplets (4). You could potentially inhale these, which may lead to a more severe bout of the flu (4).   

Lastly, any bodily fluids from someone with the flu could potentially be infectious, depending on the strain of flu virus (5). However, the flu virus has only very rarely been detected in the blood or stools of a person with the flu (5).

The flu spreads easily in hospitals

So, why does the flu spread so easily in hospitals? 

Firstly, the different ways the flu spreads make crowded areas (5) – including hospitals – an ideal environment for it to spread.

Also, healthcare facilities, by their very nature, are places where you are more likely to find people with the flu. After all, infected people need a stay in hospital during the flu season simply because they have – or are at risk of developing – complications from their flu. With their coughs, sneezes, runny noses and other symptoms (6), these flu patients could rapidly spread the flu around a busy hospital, in any of the ways we mentioned above.

But it’s not only sick patients who could easily spread the flu. The many visitors who come to see their loved ones during their hospital stay could also unknowingly bring the flu into the crowded hospital with them. While hospitals do ask visitors not to come to the hospital if they have any flu-like symptoms (3), most healthy adults may be able to infect other people even before they have any symptoms (7). And people can even be infected with the flu virus and have no symptoms at all (7).

The same applies to the busy nurses, doctors and healthcare practitioners (5). With most influenza infections asymptomatic (10), symptom-free and unaware they have the virus, they could also unknowingly spread the flu.

Protecting yourself from the flu

There are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself from the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with sick people (9).
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (9).
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth (9).
  • Clean the hard surfaces people regularly touch (1).

There are some additional steps you can ask sick family members to take to stop the flu in its tracks. Ask them to:

  • Cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing (1).
  • Use a tissue and disposing of it promptly and carefully (1).
  • Leave their bedroom windows open for a while (8).

And if they don’t live with you, ask family members and friends to stay away if they are sick (7).

Extra precautions while in hospital

If you’re unlikely enough to find yourself in hospital during the flu season, the hospital is likely to take some extra precautions to prevent the spread of flu – especially during an outbreak. These might include:

  • Screening patients for flu symptoms when they arrive (5)
  • Cleaning equipment after use (3)
  • Keeping the environment clean (3)
  • Placing posters about flu prevention around the hospital (5)
  • Minimising visits (3)
  • Preventing visits from children and people with flu-like symptoms (3)

And if you are unlucky to be admitted to hospital with flu yourself, or catch the flu while in hospital, you may find:

  • The hospital moves you into a single room or to an area with other flu patients (3).
  • Staff wear gloves, aprons and facemasks when in contact with you (3).
  • You are asked to wear a facemask when you go for x-rays or other investigations (3).
  • You can’t visit other patients or other areas within the hospital (3).
  • Your visitors are asked to wear a surgical face mask (3).

While nobody enjoys staying in hospital, being admitted to hospital with the flu can be particularly harrowing. Segregated from other patients, isolated from medical staff in their protective clothing and with visits from family and friends limited, it can be a very lonely time.

Keep yourself out of the hospital. Protect yourself from the flu.

(1) https://www.thh.nhs.uk/services/infection-control/
(2) https://ecdc.europa.eu/en/seasonal-influenza/facts/factsheet
(3) https://www.thh.nhs.uk/documents/_Patients/PatientLeaflets/infectioncontrol/PIID162-Flu_Factsheet-Nov13.pdf
(4) http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/330225/LTCF-best-practice-guidance.pdf
(5) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/infectioncontrol/healthcaresettings.htm
(6) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs211/en/
(7) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm
(8) http://www.swbh.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Influenza-flu-ML4500.pdf
(9) https://ecdc.europa.eu/en/seasonal-influenza/prevention-and-control/personal-protective-measures
(10) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(14)70034-7/fulltext


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