Flu season at work: How to keep yourself healthy

Close up of two pills and a glass of water on table. iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) The flu season is officially upon us. And according to the CDC, it has come earlier than usual this year, already hitting southern states like Alabama and Louisiana. So how can you protect yourself if your office is slammed with a slew of colds or viruses? Recently I spoke to Alan London, M.D., chief medical officer for Take Care Health Systems, a manager of worksite health and wellness centers and in-store care clinics in Walgreens stores nationwide.

MoneyWatch: What is the most important thing you can do to stop the flu this season?

Dr. Alan London: The most important preventive measure you can take is to get a flu shot every year. To prevent [being exposed to the viruses associated with the common cold], it's important to wash your hands frequently and/or use alcohol-based lotions like a hand sanitizer. Eighty-percent of contagious diseases are transmitted by touch. Cough into your sleeve instead of your hands, and try to keep your work area clean -- using disinfecting wipes on areas like telephones and keyboards.

MW: Besides phones and keyboards, what are the germiest places in an office?

AL: Any common areas can contain germs -- those touched most often by the most people would tend to carry the most -- break rooms, door knobs, sinks, refrigerators, kitchens and bathrooms at work are the most common areas to spread these contagious diseases. Coughing or sneezing in these areas leaves droplets of virus on surfaces, which can remain alive and contagious for several hours.

MW: What are other illnesses we should be aware of this season, besides the cold and flu?

AL: The most significant outbreak in many parts of the U.S. this year is whooping cough -- in fact, the CDC reports the highest incidence of whooping cough cases in 50 years. You can be vaccinated against [it]. Recommendations vary by age and vaccination history. Check with your doctor [or pharmacist].

MW: I've heard work-related stress can weaken the immune system. Is this true?

AL: Stress can impact the body's ability to prevent or fight disease. The same types of immune cells that fight disease are also the ones called into action when the body is dealing with stress.

MW: Besides trying to help employees manage stress, what can workplaces do to keep people healthy?

AL: There are a lot of things employers can do to keep their workforce healthy -- from offering various wellness programs, to incentives for healthy behavior, walking/exercise clubs, on-site fitness centers and more. The important thing is to encourage healthy behaviors...and to make it convenient and easy for employees to be proactive about preventive health. One example is to offer flu shots at the workplace.

For information about bringing flu shots to your workplace through TakeCare, go to their website.

Are you getting a flu shot this season? Please sign in and share below.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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