Beat the Cold & Flu Season This Year: A Q&A with Elaine Black, Director RD&E Food Safety
Question: After 2 years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, what is the outlook for infectious disease as we enter the 2022-23 fall and winter seasons?
Elaine: Surges in flu and other winter viruses (Norovirus, RSV, etc.) are typical this time of year as schools and colleges reopen and families and friends gather indoors for fall and winter holidays.
For those same reasons, we are also likely to see a winter surge of COVID cases as communities and gatherings move indoors for the colder weather. The overall impact of this surge will depend on several factors including the dominant variant, vaccination or booster uptake, accessibility to treatment and the severity of other illnesses like influenza, which is of particular concern this year.
Tracking flu cases in the southern hemisphere, which peaks in summer, can help us predict flu season in the northern hemisphere. Australia has been experiencing its worst flu season in 5 years, suggesting that the ‘22/’23 flu season will be a difficult one. The last two flu seasons benefited greatly from COVID restrictions like masking and social distancing. These interventions helped reduce the spread dramatically but are now largely absent in circumstances where respiratory illnesses can easily spread.
Question: Why are infection rates higher in certain seasons like fall and winter?
Answer: As people move indoors for school and social gatherings, viruses move with them and can pass more easily from one person to the next.
It has been observed that COVID transmission, for example, is driven by human behavior with spikes in colder seasons when people move indoors to stay warm. Alternatively, spikes have also been observed when the temperatures outside are warm, and people move indoors as they seek relief from the heat.
This being said, environmental factors such as cold, dry air can weaken the body’s resistance to some viruses. Some viruses also survive better in cold, dry conditions. Therefore colds, flus and other respiratory illnesses are more common in colder months.
Influenza and Norovirus for example tend to spike in winter. These illnesses often start in children in school and daycare settings, then move into the general population and eventually into long-term care settings where some of the most serious illnesses and mortality can occur.
Question: What are some best practices that individuals can follow to reduce their risk of infection this fall?
- Wash your hands often. The most common way to catch the flu is to touch your own eyes, nose or mouth with germy hands so keep your hands clean and away from your face. Wash them with soap and warm water for 20 seconds when you have access to a sink. Otherwise, hand sanitizer is a good alternative when you’re on the go.
- Maintain symptom awareness. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and be willing to stay home when you are sick. Also, pay attention to other people’s symptoms and try to avoid close contact with them.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Consider a mask in public if you are experiencing respiratory symptoms as this helps contain airborne spread from you to others.
- Follow good cleaning and disinfection practices. Pay special attention to surfaces that are frequently touched like doorknobs, elevator buttons, touchscreen counter tops, tables and chairs.
- Use cleaning and disinfecting products for their intended use. A sanitizer that can be used on your kitchen counter was not designed to sanitize human hands. Always read the product label so that you understand how it can be used safely and effectively.
Question: A recent study reports that 77% of customers want the businesses they frequent to continue making hand sanitizer available to reinforce health and safety. How can businesses and schools help their customers, employees or students stay healthy as they spend more time indoors together?
Answer: It’s easy to forget to do the things that are good for us, so making hand hygiene and other public health measures easy and accessible increases our chance of reducing the impact of winter viruses. The placement of hand hygiene products and dispensers in strategic, high-traffic areas can encourage good public health behaviors and establishing frequent surface cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces like door handles, countertops and chairs can also help break the chain of infection.
While it’s true that there are lots of opportunities to share and spread viruses this time of year, there are also many opportunities to “spread the health” and prevent illness when we maintain symptom awareness and focus on good hand and surface hygiene.