8 things you probably didn’t know about the flu

Did you know that breathing can spread the flu virus?
Did you know that breathing can spread the flu virus?

Every year, you are at risk of catching the flu virus, which can see you man down for days. Although we’ve seen many advancements with the flu vaccination, there might still be things you didn't know about the flu – we’ve found eight interesting facts.

1. You can pass the flu on before you know you’re sick

Yes, that’s right – you’re contagious before you even realise you’re sick. The flu virus can incubate in your body for one to four days before you show any symptoms, which means you may be contagious before you start to feel sick. 

What can you do to protect yourself? Wash your hands properly, dry them (germs can spread easily on wet hands), cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, and throw away snotty tissues.

2. Vitamin C won’t necessarily protect you

Linda Drummond, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, previously told Health24 that although vitamin C does play an important role in boosting your immune system, research shows that supplementing with vitamin C won’t actually protect you from catching a cold or flu. “Studies have found that in some, but not all cases, vitamin C, as an isolated strategy, may help to reduce the duration of the illness, but not protect you from it,” she said.

The claim that vitamin C will protect you from flu started in the 1970s when American chemist Linus Pauling said it could prevent and alleviate colds. However, a 2010 Cochrane Collaboration review states that vitamin C supplements will not prevent colds or flu, “except perhaps in people exposed to severe physical stress, such as marathon runners”. The University of California Health department adds, “If there were a significant benefit, it wouldn’t be so hard to prove.” 

vitamin c on a table

3. Breathing is enough to spread the virus

Sneezing and coughing are not the only ways you can spread the flu virus. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says simply breathing is enough to pass it on.

"We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing," said Dr Donald Milton, professor of environmental health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead researcher of the study. "People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time) even when they are not coughing, and especially during the first days of illness. So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others."

"The study findings suggest that keeping surfaces clean, washing our hands all the time, and avoiding people who are coughing does not provide complete protection from getting the flu," added Sheryl Ehrman, Don Beall Dean of the Charles W Davidson College of Engineering at San José State University. "Staying home and out of public spaces could make a difference in the spread of the influenza virus."

4. Your pets can get the flu but you can’t catch it from them

Just like humans, animals can also catch the flu – they may have similar symptoms, too, such as sneezing or coughing. However, because cold and flu viruses are generally species-specific, you cannot catch it from them – and you cannot pass your strain on to them.

“The common cold virus that affects humans is specific to humans. And different animal species have different strains of influenza virus that affect them. A pet's coat could transiently harbour organisms that cause disease, but this is probably not very important. So don’t worry if your pet sneezes,” said Dr John Swartzberg, infectious disease specialist and the chair of the Editorial Board of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and Berkeleywellness.com

dog and cat outdoors

5. The flu vaccine might not protect you

Time reports that the flu vaccine only reduces the risk of illness by between 40 and 60% during flu season.

According to an article on CNN, how effectively it will protect you depends on how old you are, how healthy you are and how well the “match” of the vaccine is to the strain that is doing the rounds.

Dr Bill Schaffner, chairman of the preventative medicine department at Vanderbilt University, told CNN that the vaccine usually works best for young, healthy people. But, if you do get the flu, the vaccine can offer you some protection against the more dangerous complications, such as pneumonia.

Don’t forget, too, that the vaccine doesn't offer immediate protection – it takes your body about two weeks to develop antibodies that will protect you from the virus.

6. The flu virus can live on surfaces

If you’re contagious, you can spread the flu virus up to 1.8m every time you cough or sneeze. Accidentally sneezed all over your desk? Wipe it down immediately – the flu virus can live for up to 48 hours on hard and nonporous surfaces.

And those tissues collecting in your pocket or handbag? The flu virus can live on tissues and clothing for up to 12 hours. 

crumpled tissues

7. You become more social when infected

When you’re man down with the flu, it’s a good idea to stay home and recover without infecting anyone around you – and not just because you're contagious. Research shows that your behaviour changes when you have been exposed to the flu virus, making you more social.

A study published in the Annals of Epidemiology says, “Human social behavior does, indeed, change with exposure. Compared to the 48 hours pre-exposure, participants interacted with significantly more people, and in significantly larger groups, during the 48 hours immediately post-exposure.”

8. A mask won’t protect you from getting the flu

Although covering your mouth with a mask might seem like a good preventative measure, it’s not effective. “If you’re sick with the flu and coughing and sputtering, those masks do prevent you from spraying those bugs everywhere,” said Dr M Lindsay Grayson, professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne and co-author of a study called A Quantitative Assessment of the Efficacy of Surgical and N95 Masks to Filter Influenza Virus in Patients with Acute Influenza Infection. 

“Surgical masks are designed to trap respiratory secretions (including bacteria and viruses) expelled by the wearer and prevent disease transmission to others,” the study authors add. “Surgical masks are not designed to prevent inhalation of airborne particles.” 

Woman wearing surgical mask

Image credit: iStock

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