Whether bird flu, the coronavirus COVID-19, MERS or Zika, the threat of a serious epidemic can strike fear in people across the globe. It’s wise to respect these infections. After all, each can seriously sicken people. Still, there’s no reason to panic. You can protect yourself by practicing good hygiene.
Here’s what infectious-disease experts and officials at the World Health Organization advise:
1. Wash your hands!
Often. Assume that sneezes or germy hands have left infectious residues on every surface that you have not personally cleaned or seen cleaned (especially outside your home). Scrub away for 20 seconds. (Sing the Happy Birthday song twice — and not quickly — while you wash.) Don’t forget to wash between fingers and under nails. If soap and water is unavailable, you can disinfect hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Another option: If you have to turn a door knob, put a clean tissue or paper towel between the knob and your hand.
2. Disinfect surfaces.
These include desk tops, phone keypads, computer keyboards, TV remotes, door handles and kitchen counters. Rub them down with a rag or paper towel that has been dampened with alcohol-based disinfectant. (Don’t get electronics wet. A dampened rag is sufficient and won’t harm your devices.)
3. Don’t eat food or handle dishes or utensils touched by a sick family member.
If you must touch a spoon someone else has handled (but not had in their mouth), do so. Then wash your hands.
4. Don’t share a towel with anyone in your household who is sick.
Get your own and make sure it is washed regularly with hot water. Dry towels in the sun or a hot dryer cycle.
5. Don’t shake hands, kiss or hug people.
This is the time for fist- or elbow bumps. Or smile from an arm’s distance.
6. Don’t touch your face.
It’s hard not to. Most people do it without thinking several times each hour. But germs you pick up from touching a contaminated surface may begin reproducing as soon as they contact moist areas of our eyes, nose and mouth.
7. Avoid crowds.
If you must go out where plenty of people are present, whenever possible keep a cough’s distance away from them — about a meter (or yard). Someone near to you may be infected and show no symptoms.
8. Wear gloves while out in public.
Any cotton, wool or lycra glove will do. Don’t touch the outside of the gloves when you remove them. And once home, wash the gloves in hot water (but don’t dry wool ones with heat or they’ll shrink). Disposable latex or other types of plastic gloves can be reused several times if you spray the outside with an alcohol-based disinfectant right before taking them off.
9. Don’t share papers.
Now is the time to use digital documents. If your teachers don’t ask you to write papers on a computer, suggest it. But make sure that everyone is expecting to move documents this way and looks for them. When it comes to the daily mail, dispose of envelopes and any papers you don’t need as soon as you can. And then wash your hands.
10. Practice good hygiene.
Wash your hands. Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Keep in mind that you may become infected and show no symptoms. This means you might be able to infect people at high risk of serious disease, such as an elderly grandparent or a classmate with asthma.
Finally, what about masks? Viruses can pass through the materials in most masks. There are some very expensive types (known as N-95 and N-99) that have been made to largely control exposure to disease. But during epidemics, they should be reserved to help those on the frontlines of disease — doctors and nurses. Cheaper surgical masks tend to help healthy people. Their biggest benefit is in curbing the release of infected droplets of saliva and snot from people who are already ill.
What if you feel ill during a disease outbreak?
Don’t go to school or work. You or some family member should call and ask advice from a doctor or other health professional. What you have may be a cold. But during epidemics, doctors recommend being extra cautious and reporting any possible sign that it might be far worse.
Know what symptoms to look for. With the COVID-19 coronavirus, for instance, key symptoms have been fever, chest congestion, cough and shortness of breath — not a runny nose. Knowing what symptoms characterize an outbreak may help you know whether you likely have a cold or something potentially much worse.
If you have a fever, don’t travel. This symptom usually is a sign that your body is battling a major infection. If you discover such symptoms while flying, tell a crew member immediately. Once you have landed, consult a health professional. And let them know what areas you had visited before your flight. — Janet Raloff