We might finally be over the hump for Oregon's influenza season: The percentage of visits to mid-valley hospital emergency departments for influenza-like illnesses dropped to about 2.5 percent for the last week in February. (The level was at about 5 percent just a few weeks ago.)
But we're not entirely out of the woods yet, which is why we paid particular notice to a story last week in The New York Times which suggested that Americans still are not displaying proper sneeze etiquette.
The proper practice for sneezing, as it turns out, is similar to the advice we've been given for years about the proper way to cough: into the elbow. Children know all about this; they've been hearing for years about what sometimes is referred to as "the Dracula cough," because it makes you look a little bit like the old vampire covering his face with his cape. Like Dracula cared about stopping germs.
Children may have gotten the word about sneezing into the elbow, but adults have been slow about catching on. We suspect that part of this isn't necessarily that adults are dense, but rather that sneezes sometimes require a faster reaction than coughs and our aging, aching bodies just don't have enough time to get an elbow into place before the sneeze hits. And, if we move too fast, we might sprain a muscle. In fact, at a certain point in life, we might sprain a muscle just thinking about moving fast.
But the entire point of sneezing into your elbow is to do whatever you can to stop the spread of airborne droplets. Anything you can do to reduce the spread of those infectious droplets is a good thing, especially considering that sneezes can move at speeds up to 100 mph and that each sneeze can contain up to 40,000 infectious airborne droplets. No technique completely eliminates the risk; studies have shows that even masks can't prevent every single droplet from taking to the air.
It used to be, of course, that we would sneeze into a handheld tissue or a handkerchief, which would be fine if you had no plans to do anything else with your hands until you got a chance to wash them thoroughly. (Which you still should do, by the way, even if you're not sick; health officials say frequent hand-washing with soap is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. Hand sanitizer is an OK substitute, if soap and water are not immediately available. You're supposed to wash your hands long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, but let's be honest: No one does that every time.)
Let us make a couple of additional points about about the flu, and then we promise we'll be done with the topic for the remainder of this season.
First, one thing people can do to reduce their chances of catching influenza is to get vaccinated. The most recent report from the Oregon Health Authority had some good news on that point: The state reports that 1.4 million influenza immunizations have been delivered thus far during the 2017-18 season, a record. The state said, in its most recent influenza update, that the number reflects both better reporting and an increased demand for the vaccine. (It probably helped that this year's vaccine, although a poor match for the strains of influenza seen around the nation, was better suited for the types of the illness seen in Oregon.)
Finally, this reminder: If you're unlucky enough to come down with a case of influenza even in the waning days of the season, the best advice we can offer is to stay home. We understand, of course, that this is not always possible — which is why you may want to practice that elbow move. Remember, speed is essential. Better stretch those muscles first. (mm)