Protecting students from the flu one surface at a time

Sarah Muller

Two cases of influenza were confirmed during the fall semester, but there already have been five cases since the beginning of the spring semester.

Laura Knowles, nursing and patient services supervisor at Thielen Student Health Center, said it’s the “prime time” for students to contract the virus.

“Typically, flu season runs from October through February or March and sometimes into as late as April,” Knowles said. “[Students] are bringing back lots of germs when they go home over break.”

With 36,660 students enrolled at Iowa State in the fall semester and over 12,000 students living in university housing, Knowles said the possibility of contracting influenza increases through classrooms and communal spaces.

“If you’re taking good care of yourself, you’re washing your own hands, your roommates are washing their hands and you’re washing down all your common surfaces, you’re definitely going to have better protection,” Knowles said.

Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory illness with symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose and other minor indications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Knowles explained that the contagion period is a day or two before symptoms show.

The CDC advises people to avoid contact with those who might have the illness. If one is already sick, stay home for at least 24 after the fever is gone. When coughing and sneezing, cover the nose and mouth with a tissue or the crook of the elbow.

The golden rule for the nurses at the Health Center is to always wash one’s hands. While Knowles believes hand sanitizers are effective, nothing beats warm water and a bar of soap.

“Hand sanitizer is great if you need to do something quickly or if you’re like a doctor, going from room to room,” Knowles said. “Soap and water is recommended if [you] are doing it correctly.”

Knowles explained that the best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccination, which is available at the Health Center. While people who have received the vaccination can get sick with the flu, it will not be caused by the vaccination itself.

“A flu vaccine does not make you sick,” Knowles said. “It can’t actually make you sick because it is truly a dead virus. If you do get sick after you had a flu vaccine, it is 99 percent likely you were already exposed.”

The CDC claims “there is no scientific evidence that any herbal homeopathic or other folk remedies have any benefit against influenza.” If someone is coming down with influenza, some home remedies have been proven to help cure the symptoms, while some only add comfort during the illness.

“The herbal tea is great,” said Bridget Konz, quality improvement officer at the Health Center. “It might make you feel a little bit better, because it’s comforting to you, but it’s not going to have the same impact as antibiotics or some other medication would. We encourage comfort measures.”

When a patient has an illness like influenza, the nursing staff goes through the protocol of what they call “apartment hygiene” to direct them on how to clean common surfaces.

“Any surface that is commonly touched needs to be wiped down,” Knowles said. “[Places that should be wiped] are refrigerator handles, the flush on the toilet, light switches, the very dirty remote control to the TV, the sink handles, the kitchen drawer handles and really any kind of door opening.”

While the flu can live on hard surfaces for hours, there are ways to kill the virus. The CDC explained that heat between 167 and 212 degrees can kill the flu, especially with the assistance of chemical germicides such as chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, soap and alcohols.

While the staff at the Health Center uses medical grade disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers, Knowles and Konz suggest using Lysol or Clorox products to disinfect hard surfaces or using traditional bleach.

“[These products] will kill [germs] on the surface, but that doesn’t stop you sneezing into your hand and touching the doorknob and somebody behind you touching the same doorknob,” Knowles said.