When going to work with the flu isn't heroic – just selfish

ISLAMABAD: The next time you wake up feeling groggy, with a bunged-up nose, upset tummy or uncontrollable sneezing, think twice before soldiering on and going into work.

Plenty of us do it – nearly a third of employers reported an increase in people going into work while they were ill, according to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The problem is that not only will it make you feel worse and delay your recovery, but you’ll likely infect your colleagues, too.

Common infections caused by bacteria or viruses can survive for hours, days and sometimes even weeks outside the body and on surfaces such as door handles, lift buttons and desks.

Common infections caused by bacteria or viruses can survive for hours, days and sometimes even weeks.

And some illnesses can still be infectious even after you feel better and have no lingering symptoms.

So, how long should you stay at home and is there anything you can do to prevent others catching your illness?

An infectious disease is caused by bacteria or viruses that get into the body and cause inflammatory and immune reactions. It’s this immune reaction that causes symptoms such as a fever or sneezing.

For example, sneezing is meant to help get the cold virus out of the nose, while coughing gets it out of your lungs and throat. Vomiting and diarrhoea are the body’s way of clearing bacteria out of the gastrointestinal tract.

Much like a fingerprint, each person’s immune system is unique and will react differently to a bacterial or viral invasion, leading to symptoms of varying severity, says Professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University.

However, sometimes you can have no symptoms and still be infectious – which means your illness can be caught through particles in food, water or air.

Sometimes you can have no symptoms and still be infectious – which means your illness can be caught. (This is different from ‘contagious’, which means the illness is transmitted only by physical contact between people, such as through touching, kissing or being coughed or sneezed on.)

Both colds and the flu are contagious and lead to symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose, headache and cough. The difference is, once a flu takes hold, you won’t be able to get out of bed, as it also leads to high temperature, muscle weakness and aching limbs.

You’re more likely to catch a contagious bug at home than work, as you are in closer physical contact with the people you live with, making the exchange of illness-carrying droplets more likely.

But being at work isn’t risk-free. As you’re often in an enclosed space with lots of people around, there is plenty of opportunity for an infectious germ to be passed on – not only in droplets in the air, but also on surfaces you touch, such as contaminated phones or door handles, says Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

It can take as little as one to ten particles of norovirus to become infected, and a single droplet of vomit can contain 100,000,000,000 particles

The traditional thinking is that bacteria and viruses need warm and moist conditions to survive, and don’t live long outside the body.

Yet recent research suggests that it is possible for a germ to survive outside its ideal environment, which is in our body. Exactly how long depends on a number of characteristics, including humidity and the type of surface it’s on.

Some viruses and bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and norovirus, lower their metabolism to survive in a ‘dormant’ state outside the body for days or weeks without water and nutrients, says Professor Bloomfield. Meanwhile, the bacteria Clostridium difficile develops a special outer coat, which allows it to survive even longer.

Tiny mucus droplets that contain cold and flu viruses can survive better on smooth surfaces, such as desks, than rough ones, such as carpets, as fabric surfaces dry them out, says Professor Eccles.

Some common viruses, including rhinovirus, which causes colds, can survive for up to a day on hard surfaces. A 2011 study in the Journal of Medical Virology showed that people infected with rhinovirus spread it on to surfaces such as remote controls, doorknobs and the toilet flush, and the germs stayed there overnight, getting on to others’ hands 24 hours later.

Touching the surface itself won’t do you any harm – in order to catch a cold or flu, the virus has to get into your nose or throat, adds Professor Eccles. So avoid touching your face if someone in your family or office has a cold.

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