By far the most effective way to prevent flu is to have the annual flu vaccine.

Many cold and flu viruses are acquired from people who don’t yet show any symptoms, and it’s always difficult to contain viruses that travel through the air. You can’t really help being exposed to these viruses. However, there are some general measures you can take to give yourself the best chance of avoiding infection.

At home or work

• Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth unnecessarily.

• "Contain" sneezes and coughs with disposable tissues (and make sure to dispose of them right away!) and wash your hands afterwards.

• Try not to touch objects around you when in public places, such as the rail of the escalator or your coughing colleague's pen or computer mouse.

• To minimise exposure, avoid close or prolonged contact with people with a cold or flu. With an incubation period of one to four days and a contagious period of seven days or longer, it’s best to avoid any person with flu for at least a week.

• There may be a role for vitamin A supplementation to prevent flu in children who are malnourished.

• Quit smoking. Those who smoke are more vulnerable to complications of respiratory infections. • Clean surfaces – especially kitchen and bathroom counter tops – with disinfectant soap.

Your child • Discourage your child from sharing food, utensils, handkerchiefs, napkins and towels with classmates.

• Toys may be contaminated with respiratory secretions. Look for childcare centres where plastic toys are washed daily and stuffed toys washed weekly.

• Teach your children to wash their hands before and after eating, after using the bathroom, after touching their faces, after spending time in public spaces, and after touching animals.

• Rather keep your toddler at home if a child at the crèche has the flu and yours is healthy. Similarly, keep a child at home who shows symptoms of flu to avoid infecting other children.

The flu shot

The best way to reduce your chances of contracting flu is by getting a flu vaccination. Although flu is generally not dangerous, it can cause serious complications and even death, especially in the elderly and the very young. That’s why you should rather avoid contracting this highly contagious disease, especially if you’re vulnerable.

New strains

Because of slight changes (called mutations) in the genetic material of the influenza A and B viruses, new virus strains emerge each year. As a result vaccines have to be updated each season.

Three strains of influenza are generally included in the annual vaccine, based on the prediction of the strains likely to circulate in the community during a given season.

These small, almost yearly, genetic changes should not be confused with a major genetic “shift”. Such a shift could lead to the creation of a completely new influenza virus to which humans have not been exposed before and to which we have little or no resistance, such as the pandemic influenza A/H1N1 (swine flu).

(Reviewed by Dr Jane Yeats, Department of Virology, University of Cape Town 2006)

(Updated and reviewed by Dr Jean Maritz and Dr Leana Maree, medical virologists, Tygerberg Hospital and University of Stellenbosch 2010)


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