Flu and You

This week’s New York Times has a good article with new facts about the flu. Seems that there have been very few experiments looking at flu transmission because there weren’t any good (read: cheap, and non-biting) animal models for flu spread. Even if you could infect them with flu, most animals then didn’t transmit flu to each other, except for ferrets, and ferrets are…well, ferrets. Want to stick your hand into a cage full of cranky, runny-nose ferrets? Nah, didn’t think so.

But someone read an ancient (yes, 1919!) article that mentioned the fact that guinea pigs caught the flu during the pandemic of 1918. Excuse me? When they were searching for an animalguinea-pig_1.jpg species to be a scientific guinea pig, how is it no one [wait for the thought here, people, I know it’s a shocker] tried actual guinea pigs? Well, it appears no one did. Until now. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed for scientists everywhere. Let’s just ignore the 98-year delay, and move on to what scientists learned from the suffering of tiny coughing piggles (with Doc Gurley flu advice on how that information can help you):

Scientists found that:

1) Flu breeds and spreads optimally in dry, cold weather–specifically at 41 degrees F and 20% humidity.

2) Raising either the temperature to 86 degrees F, or the humidity to 80%, completely stops transmission.

3) Why does humidity make a difference? You get the flu by breathing it in. Flu is transmitted from inhaling virus particles that are floating in the air (not from touching contaminated objects–that’s a cold virus you’re thinking of). As the humidity rises, flu particles surfing in the air collide with bigger and bigger water droplets and then fall, to die on the ground.

4) In guinea pigs, if the animal is in a warm (68 degrees F) place, the guinea pig stops transmitting virus 2 days earlier than if it’s in a cool place–presumably because cool air keeps the breathing passages cooler, allowing the virus to keep replicating.

What this interesting article doesn’t cover are the Flu and You implications, which is where Doc Gurley comes in. Are there any reasonable, practical things you can do, knowing this new information? Obviously, getting a flu shot is your best bet for avoiding the flu. Besides that, for starters, what this research means is that we are probably getting the flu when we are mingling with large numbers of people in cool, dry places. When I think of lots of people standing in cool dry air, the image of millions of moms at the elementary school, waiting for pick-up, springs to mind. Also bus stops.

Second, if I were a teacher, I’d definitely bring in my humidifier and park it in the corner of a classroom. Leaving one humming in the background might just reduce the transmission of all those combined flu particles floating in the air.

Third, your grandmother was right. You should have soup when you’re sick, because it will make your throat feel better and hydrate you. But now we also know that just the act of making soup, with the pot simmering on the stove and your windows steaming up, can reduce by two days the time you spend shedding flu virus. If you’re a guinea pig, that is.

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