The officemate who has the desk next to yours comes in to work one day with a runny nose and a hacking cough and complains of headaches, fever, and chills. Apart from wishing she’d go home and rest for her sake, you might be wishing she’d do it so you and your other coworkers don’t catch whatever flu she’s got. You’re probably also remembering all those nifty tips about proper hand washing procedures and unearthing that bottle of hand sanitizer from your bag or drawer.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It probably happens in just about every office. And what you may not realize is it may already be too late. Research done on ferrets, which are prone to getting the same strains of flu virus humans do and often show the same symptoms as well, indicates that transmission may occur before the first symptom even appears. And while this has yet to be proven in humans, it’s a good enough indicator that you should take preventive action, as far as the flu goes.

For the study, researchers infected ferrets with the same flu strain found in the 2009 swine flu worldwide pandemic, which killed nearly 300,000 people. As the infection progressed, the animals were then placed either in the same cage or in adjacent cages as healthy ferrets. The sick ferrets were able to pass the flu to their healthy counterparts within 24 hours of infection, regardless of whether they were in the same cage or in the cage beside the uninfected ferrets. But the first symptom, fever, only manifested itself 45 hours after infection, and the second, sneezing, only occurred after 48 hours.

The study was published in the open access journal PLoS ONE and conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. Lead study author Professor Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London’s Department of Medicine was frank about the implications of these findings. “It means that the spread of flu is very difficult to control, even with self-diagnosis and measures such as temperature screens at airports,” she is quoted as saying in a press release by her college. “It also means that doctors and nurses who don’t get the flu jab are putting their patients at risk because they might pass on an infection when they don’t know they’re infected.”

Aside from that, here’s another sobering thing to remember: according to the article, the study’s findings support earlier studies that found that you don’t have to be sneezed on to catch the flu because microscopic droplets of the virus are made airborne as a sick person breathes in and out normally.

On the upside, you can worry less about catching the flu from your friend who’s just recovering from it, as the researchers found that after five or six days, during the late stages of infection and when the symptoms have started to subside, infection was much less common.

Still, given this information, you may want to start paying more attention to those public health advisories about washing your hands properly and frequently, and you may want to start carrying around a bottle of hand sanitizer with you.

[Click here for more tips on keeping yourself flu-free.]

(Photo by Morgan / meddygarnet via Flickr Creative Commons)

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