Flu season is no joke, and now there’s even more reason to be wary of the flu – it might spread more easily than people realise.
In fact, the flu may be spread just by breathing. That’s the major takeaway from a new University of Maryland study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study, researchers captured the flu virus in the exhaled breath of 142 people with confirmed cases of the flu while they breathed naturally, spoke, coughed, and sneezed.
Then the researchers assessed the breath for infectiousness. The study participants also provided 218 nose and throat swabs and 218 30-minute samples of their breath on the first, second, and third days after they began experiencing symptoms.
The researchers found that a significant number of flu patients regularly exhaled the virus via aerosol particles that were small enough to cause a risk of airborne transmission.
About 48 percent of the 23 fine aerosol samples the researchers collected when people breathed but didn’t cough had detectable levels of the flu, and most of those were infectious (i.e., they could make other people sick).
While most people tend to think they can catch the flu only by being exposed to droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, or by touching surfaces that have been contaminated with those droplets, the researchers found that that just isn’t the case.
Before you panic, know this: While the information is surprising to most people, it’s not to the medical community.
“We knew that the flu had the capacity to do this, but this study is just showing it’s a real phenomenon,” Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease physician, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The flu is spread most efficiently from person to person when people are within one to two metres of each other, William Schaffner, reveals. “When someone with the flu breathes out, it hovers in the air, and if someone who is within range breathes it in, they are infected,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
That said, you’re still at the biggest risk of contracting the flu from coughs and sneezes or by touching infected surfaces than you are breathing it in.
To protect yourself during flu season, it’s not too late get a flu shot. It’s also a good idea to avoid people who are coughing and sneezing whenever possible.
Good hand hygiene is also crucial, Schaffner says, and it’s especially important to suds up well after you visit a public place with a lot of people, like the shops or school.
While the study’s findings are a little scary, you shouldn’t freak out over them. This study just helps explain why the flu is so prolific — but it doesn’t mean that the flu has suddenly mutated into a supervirus.
“The flu is the same. This is not some new property that the flu has acquired,” Adalja says.
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