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Preventing colds and flu at the office

Do colds and the flu spread through your office like wildfire? It’s likely because crowded areas, such as the workplace, pose the greatest risk for spreading illness.

“Infections are ultimately spread by ourselves and our coworkers,” says Jesse Couk, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Piedmont. “Many infections are spread through the air by coughing, sneezing or throwing up. We may also risk contamination when we share equipment such as a printer, phone or keyboard.”

The “germiest” place in the office

Most people think of the bathroom as the “germiest” place in the office, but that isn’t so, says Dr. Couk.

“Bathrooms are cleaned frequently,” says Dr. Couk. “And most of us (I hope) wash our hands before we leave. Instead we should think of common areas and frequently used items such as computers, door handles or copiers as the greatest source of contamination.”

How long can bacteria or viruses survive in the workplace?

Upper respiratory viruses that cause colds and the flu, and even the norovirus (stomach flu) can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your eyes, mouth or nose.

“A surface contaminated by an influenza virus may remain infectious for 24 hours,” explains Dr. Couk. “And some enteric viruses such as Hepatitis A, Rotavirus and some bacteria can remain infectious on surfaces for months.”

Preventing the spread of infection at work

It would be impossible to avoid touching any shared surfaces or items at work. In fact, most of us need to use our hands to complete daily tasks. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk of infection.

1. Wash your hands.

“I think it is helpful to think of our hands as consistently contaminated surfaces that must be cleaned before we interact with others, eat or touch our face,” says Dr. Couk. “Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water after handling shared equipment and avoid sharing equipment when possible.”

If hand sanitizer is not readily available at work, it may be helpful to carry a pocket-sized sanitizer with you. Also, remember to use soap and water to scrub your hands before eating. 

2. Stay home when you are feeling sick.

“This will have the greatest impact on minimizing the spread of infection,” says Dr. Couk.  “If you begin having symptoms at work, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough or sneeze into the fold of your arm.”

3. Clean shared surfaces with disinfectant.

Wipe down shared workspaces, computer keyboards or phones with a disinfectant wipe or spray. These cleaners can help sterilize contaminated surfaces and prevent the spread of infections. 

4. Avoid shaking hands.

While shaking hands is a common greeting in the United States, it is not particularly sanitary. Dr. Couk suggests simply waving or using a fist bump to greet instead.

Flu shots are available at Piedmont’s urgent care locations, primary care offices and Piedmont QuickCare at Walgreens locations.   

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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