Right in the thick of debates over whether to restrict air travel from countries where the Ebola epidemic rages, and the sudden emergence of enterovirus-D68 as a deadly threat to children with underlying respiratory issues, comes flu season, with its annual U.S. death toll in the tens of thousands. What’s a worried employer to do?
There are some highly effective precautions that your workers can take that will help to prevent the person-to-person spread of infectious diseases in your workplace. This protects not only your workforce but also your workers’ families and your community. As we head into flu season, give your workers a refresher course on keeping their illness to themselves.
How Infectious Diseases Spread
It’s important to understand how infectious diseases spread, in order to understand why certain precautions are necessary and how they work. The most common ways that infectious diseases spread include:
Airborne or droplet transmission. Some diseases can spread through the air. Usually what happens—for example, with colds, the flu, and enterovirus-D68—is that a person will cough, sneeze, or blow their nose, and the infectious mists or droplets will remain suspended in air for a time. The larger the particle, the less time it spends in the air—but in most cases, this is sufficient to spread the disease to others in the room and possibly to those who enter the room a short time later.
For some diseases, very tiny particles called aerosols remain suspended in the air—and infectious—for quite some time, and can travel long distances. Measles and tuberculosis spread in this way.
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Contact transmission. Some diseases are spread through direct contact, meaning that the infectious agent is present in body fluids or on surfaces, where an uninfected person comes into contact with it. If the infectious agent then touches a person’s mouth, nose, eyes, or broken skin, infection can occur.
Ebola is spread in this way, and colds and other droplet-spread diseases can also be spread in this way, when the infectious droplets land on a surface that is then touched by an uninfected person.
In addition to understanding how diseases spread, it’s important to understand when a person becomes contagious—that is, capable of spreading the disease to others. Sometimes, victims are contagious before they are sick; other diseases are not contagious until symptoms appear. Here’s a short primer on common infectious diseases and/or diseases of current concern:
Colds. People with colds are usually most contagious during the first 2 to 3 days of the cold; after a week, they are usually no longer contagious.
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Flu. Most people are contagious for 24 hours before symptoms first appear—and symptoms tend to appear suddenly. Adults remain contagious for up to 7 days; children can remain contagious for longer.
Ebola. Victims of the Ebola virus are not infectious until they develop symptoms—fever, sore throat, headache, and muscle pain are common. They remain contagious until they have no more symptoms—although Ebola remains in semen for up to 7 weeks, so the World Health Organization recommends that men who have recovered from Ebola virus infection abstain from sexual activity for at least 7 weeks.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to avoid passing infectious diseases around the workplace.