5 Things an Infectious Disease Doctor Wishes Everyone Would Do To Stop the Spread of Illness in Their Home

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If you live with other people in an apartment or a house, winter can be an especially tricky time to stay healthy. The rates of the flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses tend to spike right at the peak of the staying-indoors season. As a result, the chances of spreading illness among family, friends, partners, and roommates are higher. While it might feel like getting sick is inevitable the second someone comes home with a fever or runny nose, that doesn't have to be the case, says Purvi S. Parikh, MD, an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York. As long as you act quickly, communicate effectively, and get on the same page about contact and sanitation measures that reduce your risk of infection—you may just halt that nasty cold in its tracks.

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So, we talked with Dr. Parikh about his top tips to prevent the spread of illness at home as much as possible during this particularly challenging time of year.

How do common infectious diseases spread?

First of all, it's important to understand how infectious diseases spread. Some germs infect you by landing on your eyes, mouth, or nose and then get into your body (or remain on your hands, which you then transfer to your eyes, nose, or mouth when you touch those areas), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's why hand washing is so important and was stressed so intensely at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's also worth noting that some illnesses spread more readily than others. Again, COVID-19 is much more contagious via respiratory droplets than the average cold or flu, which is why masking, distancing, testing, and quarantining are important for mitigating the spread. As for things like the flu, colds, and norovirus (commonly known as the stomach flu)—they can be less contagious through respiratory droplets but live longer on surfaces that are frequently touched, per the CDC.

So, knowing what you're dealing with is the first step to keeping your household healthy. Generally speaking, if you want to prevent the spread of illness in your home, it's important to remember three key things, says Dr. Parikh—keep your distance, sanitize frequently, and communicate with everyone in the home. Of course, this can be hard for parents of young children, who, as caregivers, can't really keep their distance, but the tips below can still help prevent everyone in the house from coming down with every single respiratory illness that comes through the door.

5 tips to prevent the spread of illness at home

1. Figure out what type of illness you're dealing with

This is an important first step as it will help you form a plan. You may want to wear a mask while the person experiencing symptoms takes a COVID-19 test. (Note: you can still get eight free tests through your insurance right now.) If it's positive, you can follow the World Health Organization's (WHO) most updated steps for preventing the spread of the virus in your home, which includes masking and isolating. "Even if the illness at hand is not COVID-19, you can still wear a mask, sanitize your hands frequently, and keep commonly touched surfaces clean as well," says Dr. Parikh.

2. Wear a mask and sleep in a separate room from sick people

Masking can prevent the spread of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and more. Though if the person is too young or unwilling to wear a mask, there are still ways to prevent the spread of sickness amidst your family, including spending time in different parts of the house.

Wearing a mask won't really work, however, while sleeping in the same bed with a sick person, says Dr. Parikh. It's very likely it could fall off in your sleep and, therefore, not offer reliable protection. Instead, sleeping in separate rooms from a sick person is ideal, and wearing masks when you're awake and in the same room is wise, he says. "If a sick person can isolate to one part of the home, it is best. You can bring them food, meds, etc., but keep a distance and drop outside their door," says Dr. Parikh.

3. Wash your hands and sanitize surfaces

Sanitization is important for preventing the spread of illness, since touching a surface with a pathogen and then touching your face can introduce that pathogen into your body. The list of important surfaces to clean is long and includes countertops, tabletops, door knobs, toilet seats, toilet covers, flushers, shower knobs, light switches, and fridge handles. These should be sanitized around twice a day, and you should wash your hands regularly and try not to touch your face, according to the CDC.

It's also important to be washing dishes super thoroughly and even have the sick person use separate utensils and dishes while they're ill. This is especially true if you do not have a dishwasher, says Dr. Parikh.

4. Promote better ventilation in your home

Cracking windows and running HEPA-certified air filters are steps you can take toward promoting better ventilation in your home. This can reduce the number of viral particles in the air, and usher them outdoors, per the CDC. Though Dr. Parikh does stress that the best methods for preventing the spread of illness are isolating and masking, that's not always realistic for families with young children or other circumstances that make staying away from each other difficult.

5. Prepare before anyone gets sick

Aside from responding quickly and thoroughly to the sign of illness, you can also prevent sickness from spreading by preparing when everyone is well. This looks like making sure all eligible family members are up to date with vaccines and talking about your boundaries and desires for precautionary measures with your household before illnesses arise.

Finally, Dr. Parikh recommends that you try to have rapid COVID-19 tests, masks, gloves, soap, sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes on hand and ready to go at the first sign of a sniffle. These things will all go a long way to help prevent everyone in your home from getting sick.

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