Every year, a new strain of influenza spreads like wildfire through our communities. Schools, churches, and offices are a chorus of sniffles as the flu “goes around.”
One of the most interesting things scientists have learned over the past decade is that the flu is far more common than people realize. It’s also not as severe. In an interview with NPR, Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London, says people may experience such mild symptoms that they regularly mistake influenza with the common cold.
An important question remains: can you be a carrier of the flu and not get it? The answer is a resounding yes. Here’s what everyone needs to know.
Why Most People Who Have the Flu Never Realize It
The two symptoms that distinguish the flu from another seasonal sickness are the sudden high fever and muscle aches. While a lot of people get the other, milder symptoms – runny nose, cough, feeling rundown – the rise in temperature and pains are pretty uncommon.
What’s more, a study of seasonal influenza and a pandemic virus found that most infections don’t produce symptoms at all. Flu Watch, a program run by University College London, Public Health England, and other UK institutions, found that 77% of flu infections produce no symptoms.
In other words, you can absolutely get the flu and be asymptomatic. And if you do, you’re the rule rather than the exception.
Why does that happen?
Scientists aren’t sure, but they believe that asymptomatic cases may reflect a pre-existing partial immunity to the flu.
The prevalence of partial immunity is excellent news because the flu is never a pleasant experience, and when it merges with underlying conditions, it can be deadly. However, there is some bad news. Three-quarters of people may not experience flu symptoms, but they can spread the flu. So how do we stop it?
Can You Be a Carrier of the Flu and Not Get It?
Most unvaccinated people who contract the flu virus don’t experience symptoms. However, you can be a carrier of the flu and not get it.
While it’s great news that the flu is both more common and less severe than previously thought, the bad news is that asymptomatic carriers play a role in transmission.
While we don’t know much about the way the flu spreads between people, scientists understand that asymptomatic patients can shed and transmit the virus. Thankfully, asymptomatic people don’t do so at the same rate as someone who is symptomatic.
Even still, the number of asymptomatic cases makes preventing the spread more complicated. The traditional advice to isolate yourself (e.g., stay home from work, limit contact with others) when you experience symptoms is harder to apply to people who never feel sick or who think they simply have a mild cold.
How You Can Avoid Spreading the Flu
Locking yourself away every flu season isn’t the answer. Of course, if you do get sick, you should stay home. But what can you do to prevent accidentally transmitting the flu (or another virus) to others even during the times when you feel well?
The first thing everyone can do is treat the common cold like it might be as contagious as the flu. You don’t need to don a hazmat suit. Instead, you need to understand how it spreads through droplets. In other words, if you’re coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and turn away from others. Droplets can travel three to six feet, and if they land, they can get people around you sick.
Second, you should be sure to wash your hands if you’re making contact with someone who is sick. The influenza virus only lives on your hands for 5 minutes or less, but handwashing is the best way to reduce the transmission of illness.
Third, it’s a good idea to avoid crowded waiting rooms, if you can help it, particularly if you’re symptomatic. The waiting rooms of emergency rooms are often full of vulnerable people, and they’re the last people you want to risk infecting. If it’s flu season, you might consider going to this urgent care clinic to avoid the wait and lower your risk of transmission.
Can the Flu Vaccine Stop You From Spreading the Flu?
The flu vaccine is an excellent resource for everyone with underlying conditions. The CDC says that everyone older than six months of age can benefit from it.
While the flu vaccine can stop you from getting the flu, it won’t stop you from spreading it. It makes you partially immune to the season’s strain. But like other asymptomatic carriers, you will still carry and shed the virus. That means you can be contagious.
What’s more, your flu vaccine won’t cover other respiratory infections. It won’t stop rhinovirus, adenovirus, flu-like-RSV, or other viruses. There are no vaccines to combat these viruses either, so isolation and handwashing are essential regardless of whether you’re sick or vaccinated.
Act Like You Have the Flu to Keep Your Communities Safe
Over the past decade, we’ve learned a lot about respiratory viruses and how they spread. While there’s still a lot to learn, we have answered an important question: can you be a carrier of the flu and not get it?
The answer is a resounding yes. Not only are asymptomatic cases prevalent, but you’re still contagious even if you’re not ‘sick.’ That means you could have the flu and give it to someone else and never know it.
While there are no easy answers, we can all play our part in protecting the health of our communities each flu season. That means acting as if we have the flu to limit its spread. Thankfully, all you need to do is cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze, wash your hands, and stay home when you have symptoms (even when mild).
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