Swine flu has yet to escalate into a global pandemic, but here’s what to do if it does

Experts say that the steps you should take to shield yourself from swine flu are not much different than those you might take to ward off seasonal flu.

  1. Don’t touch your face
    Above all, keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth and nose, all of which serve as pathways for the virus to enter your respiratory tract, says Allison Aiello, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.
  2. Wash your hands
    If you must touch your face, scrub your hands, getting under the fingernails and inside all crevices, for 20 to 30 seconds with hot soap and water beforehand, Aiello says. “In addition to dislodging dirt that may contain virus particles, soaps contain surfactants [the primary components of detergents] which can damage the lipid [fat] protecting virus particles,” she explains. Soap should therefore be effective against all flu viruses.
  3. Use a hand sanitizer
    No sink nearby? Then use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, Aiello advises. About a quarter-size spot, rubbed all over the hands until the sanitizer evaporates (usually 10 to 15 seconds), should do it. Alcohol can inactivate viruses by destroying the structure of their proteins, she notes.
  4. Cover your nose and mouth
    When someone sneezes or coughs, liquid droplets packing flu viruses can travel as far as three feet (one meter) through the air and descend on your nose or mouth, so it’s best to maintain at least an arm’s-length distance when talking to someone who shows signs of infection, says Louise Dembry, director of epidemiology at Yale–New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. And to protect others, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and clean your hands afterward, she says, noting that viruses can remain infectious for hours, if not longer, when they linger on the skin or other surfaces such as keyboards and subway poles.
  5. Consider buying a mask in case you need it in the future
    From press photos, it seems that Mexico’s entire population has donned surgical masks, but the verdict is still out on how effective they are in stemming the spread of flu, according to Aiello. Some research suggeststhat masks—either the surgical variety or respirators called N95’s specially designed to filter out water droplets containing viruses—reduce the risk of contracting the flu or other respiratory pathogens by as much as 80 percent, but research by Aiello’s team suggests that masks do little unless used in conjunction with diligent hand washing.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is “extremely limited” data on the effectiveness of face masks and respirators for blocking flu spread in communities. The agency suggests, however, that people consider using them when it’s impossible to avoid “crowded settings or close contact with others” in areas where swine flu transmission has been confirmed: face masks for crowded places and respirators for situations that involve close contact with people who have respiratory infections (caring for a sick family member, for example)