As fall flu season approaches and concern about the spread of illness remains on the front pages of newspapers and in the front of many people’s minds, it’s important to know how to protect yourself and others from the flu and other contagious diseases. That awareness is particularly crucial in the hospital setting, as people who are already sick may be much more vulnerable to complications from diseases like the flu.
“The best thing you can do for a friend or family member in the hospital—not to mention all our other patients—is to stay home if you’re sick,” says Dr. Sarah Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center. “If you’re not feeling well—especially if you’re coughing or sneezing—then bringing your sickness into the hospital puts many others at risk.”
Influenza activity picks up in the fall every year. This year, the prevalence of H1N1 influenza—“swine flu”—may have an additional effect on the flu season. But it’s impossible to predict exactly how influenza virus will impact our communities, according to Dr. Haessler. “It could follow any number of paths.”
Regardless of the course of the coming flu season, hospital policies for infection control are well thought out and carefully implemented to keep patients, staff and visitors safe from the spread of contagious disease. “We’re ready for any scenario,” says Dr. Haessler.
But the medical experts need your help. Here are a few tips to make your visits to the hospital as safe as possible for you and your loved ones:
- Always wash your hands upon entering and leaving the patient’s room. Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, shutting off the faucet with a paper towel, or use alcohol hand gel and rub your hands together until dry. Dr. Haessler explains, “Visitors should clean their hands before visiting family members in the room, and after they leave the room to: A, protect their family member and B, protect themselves. The most important thing a person can do is wash their hands.”
- Assess your own health before visiting the hospital. It’s not just about the patient’s health. “Don’t come visit unless you’re feeling well yourself. If you have a contagious illness—the flu, a cold, a cough or a stomach bug, you should not come visit your family or friend in the hospital,” Dr. Haessler says.
- If the patient you are visiting has a contagious disease, consider calling instead. This is the safest way to protect your health. If you have not had close contact with the patient in the past week, you should not come to the hospital. Protect yourself from exposure and call instead.
- If you do decide to visit a patient with a contagious illness, wear the protective items offered by the medical staff. Wearing the face mask, eye shield and gown will help protect you from any and all germs that you encounter in the patient’s room.
- Do not visit if you are at higher risk to contract infections. It is recommended that children under 2 years old, adults 65 years and older, and anyone with chronic heart or lung disease or a weakened immune system do not visit the hospital if the patient has a contagious disease.
Dr. Haessler adds that, while it’s important to be aware of the potentially serious complications of infectious diseases like the flu, keeping a level head is equally key. “If you wash your hands often, and use common sense if you’re around someone who is sick, there is no reason to worry or to alter your normal daily activities during flu season.”
Remember, we all want to visit our loved ones. However, hospitals need to keep their patients, as well as their visitors, as healthy as possible. Please think carefully before visiting a patient to help hospitals maintain a safer and healthier clinical environment.
Visit Baystate Health's online Flu and H1N1 virus website for more information and tips for staying healthy this flu season.