Now that’s it’s getting colder outside, it’s the time of year we should all be thinking about how to prevent spreading the flu inside. What makes things more difficult this flu season is the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. But the good news is that many of the same steps you can use to stop influenza from spreading indoors can be applied to the spread of coronavirus.
We’re already aware of the benefits that washing our hands and wearing a mask can provide, but being cooped up indoors with two viruses threatening our health poses a unique set of challenges. There’s only so much soap, water and an N-95 mask can do.
Let’s look at some other ways to prevent spreading the flu and the coronavirus while we’re inside all winter long.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention people with flu and/or coronavirus can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly inhaled into the lungs.
A professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Dr. Shelly Miller, explained how air exchange can help decrease the risk. She says that once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building. The safest indoor space is one that constantly has lots of outside air replacing the stale air inside.
Researchers with the Environmental Protection Agency tell us that outdoor air enters and leaves a house or building three different ways. They are:
Bringing in fresh air (from outside) dilutes any contaminant in a building (or your home), whether it’s a virus or something else.
Dr. Miller says that one way to determine whether the rooms in your building or home are adequately ventilated is to measure the carbon dioxide levels as each time you exhale, you release CO2 into the air.
She says that since the coronavirus is most often spread by breathing, coughing or talking, you can use CO2 levels in the room to estimate if enough fresh outside air is getting in.
When you go outside, CO2 levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm). A well-ventilated room will have around 800 ppm of CO2. If it gets any higher than that, it may mean your room is in need of more ventilation.
Researchers in Taiwan say increased ventilation helped put a stop to a tuberculosis outbreak at a school. Many of the rooms in the school were underventilated and had CO2 levels above 3,000 ppm. When engineers improved air circulation and dropped CO2 levels under 600 ppm, the outbreak completely stopped. The increase in ventilation accounted for a 97% decrease in transmission.
Both the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Keep these things in mind when you go inside a building or your home.
Dr. Miller reminds us that if you use an air purification system, the CO2 levels in the room may still be elevated even though the air is safer. Air purifiers do not remove CO2.
Through photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen, and they can also remove toxins from the air we breathe. One famous NASA experiment, published in 1989, found that indoor plants can scrub the air of cancer-causing volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde and benzene. Additional research discovered that soil microorganisms in potted plants also play a part in cleaning indoor air.
Based on this research, some scientists say house plants are effective natural air purifiers.
Remember that your best protection against influenza is vaccination. To get the flu shot, contact your North Ohio Heart/Ohio Medical Group primary care physician, or if you don’t have one, you can find a doctor online.
Another thing you can do to prevent spreading the flu or coronavirus inside is to check out our new interactive webpage. It highlights some of the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and influenza. And shows you even more ways to decrease your risk this winter.