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How Flu Viruses Spread
Child sneezing

Did you know that the flu virus can live for two hours or more on hard surfaces like doorknobs, tables and desks? It’s enough to make you want to wear a protective bodysuit all day long. But there’s plenty you can do to avoid germs without resigning yourself to life in a bubble. Protection starts with learning how the flu virus is spread.

Colds and the flu are spread mainly from person to person through coughs and sneezes. Tiny droplets from a cough or sneeze will travel through the air into the mouths or noses of people nearby. But these droplets can also land on surfaces in your surroundings, like the top of a table or desk. If someone touches these surfaces, then touches his eyes, nose or mouth before washing his hands, the virus spreads.

Another way the flu can spread is if an infected person coughs or sneezes into her hands, then touches a hard surface like a phone, keyboard, or toy before washing her hands. If another person touches that phone, keyboard or toy and then touches his own eyes, nose or mouth before washing his hands, the infection spreads.

Considering how long a flu virus can live on a hard surface, the objects around you are likely to be touched much more often than they can be cleaned and disinfected. This is why it’s so important to wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.

The biggest key to prevention, of course, is vaccination: Oregon Public Health recommends that everyone get the seasonal flu vaccine as early as possible. See our vaccine locator for details on where to find your flu shots.

Help stop the spread of the flu virus:

  • Carry alcohol-based hand wipes or hand-sanitizing gels with you to clean your hands when you are out in public – check the labels to make sure they’re 60 percent to 95 percent alcohol.
  • Clean household surfaces with products that are both detergents (which wash away dirt) and disinfectants (which kill germs). You can use these even if surfaces aren’t visibly dirty.
  • If household objects or surfaces are visibly dirty, wash them first with a general household cleaner (soap or detergent), rinse with water, then follow with a disinfectant.
  • Be sure to follow label instructions; pay attention to any warnings and follow instructions for using protective gloves or other items. Never mix disinfectants and cleaners unless the labels indicate it is safe to do so. Combining certain products (such as chlorine bleach and ammonia cleaners) can result in serious injury or death.
  • If disinfectants are not available, use a chlorine bleach solution made by adding one tablespoon of bleach to a quart (4 cups) of water; use a cloth to apply this to household surfaces and let stand for 3 to 5 minutes before rinsing with clean water. Always wear gloves when working with bleach.
  • Be sure to clean objects that tend to be touched by many people, such as doorknobs, microwaves or refrigerator handles. Use sanitizer cloths on things like car door handles, steering wheels and gear shifts, phones, computers, pens, travel mugs, remote controls and hand-held games. 
  • Try not to “hug” dirty laundry or shake sheets when removing them from the bed, and wash your hands after touching dirty laundry. Wash your hands again before removing clean laundry from the machine, especially if you’ve recently coughed or sneezed.
  • Avoid touching used tissues and other trash when emptying waste baskets, and wash your hands afterwards.