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Health Experts Warn Travelers to Take Precautions Against Flu

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The Dallas Morning News


DALLAS - Whether you'll be traveling this week to or from visiting the in-laws, a ski resort or some other destination, health experts suggest taking precautions against contagious illnesses, particularly the flu.

Unfortunately, the healthy people must rely in large measure on the good graces of the sick people, because the first rule is a tough one: Avoid others if you are sick, especially if you were planning to share close quarters with loved ones.

The holiday merriment certainly will be quashed if someone infects family and friends with the flu, warns Shirley Shores, director of infection control at Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas.

And flu victims are more likely to catch other illnesses because of their weakened immune system, she said.

"I would encourage people who are ill not to go to family gatherings and spread it," Shores said. "Stay home."

Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Health, said people should not cancel their travel plans because of fears about getting sick. But he echoed the advice that sick people should be respectful of others and parents should be careful about exposing their children to infected people, because the illness can be deadly among the young and the elderly.

"Travel during the holidays certainly has the potential to spreading influenza to people who haven't had it yet," he said. "Don't risk infecting colleagues by going to work, or classmates by going to school or family and friends by visiting them."

He also stressed that both sick and healthy people should pay close attention to common public health precautions:

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to prevent those around you from getting sick; wash your hands often; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, as germs often are spread this way.

"The virus is not something that floats through the air like a measles virus. It pretty much takes that close proximity through a cough or sneeze," he said. "It's not something where you're going to walk into a room, breathe deeply and come out with influenza."

Diana Fairechild, a former flight attendant, wrote "Jet Smarter," a book with her tips for safe, healthy and comfortable flying. She suggests that sick people avoid air travel because they are more vulnerable to illnesses being carried by the other passengers.

"Whatever you have is going to spread to everyone else on board and that could expand to epidemic proportions over the holidays," Fairechild said. "We need to really be responsible here."

She suggests bringing disposable masks, sold at hardware stores, to hand out to people on the flight who are coughing or sneezing. She also advises passengers to wear a damp handkerchief over their nose and mouth to combat the dry air circulating in the cabin.

"That way you are not vulnerable to the droplets in people's talking, coughing and sneezing," she said. "It helps by creating humidity for your own lungs. The dry air is a stress not only when you are sick. The moistened handkerchief helps to keep the moisture in."

Pay particular attention to staying hydrated by drinking lots of water. In the lavatory, make sure to wash hands and use a paper towel to open the bathroom door, she said.

"Especially on long flights," Fairechild said. "It just gets dirtier and dirtier and no one tidies up."

If you come down with the flu or some other illness after your trip has begun, contact your regular doctor to determine whether a trip to a local one is in order, McBride said.

A person sick with the flu can spread the illness one day before symptoms show up and up to seven days after getting sick. Children can be contagious for longer than seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC suggests that those planning cruise ship travel should consult with their doctor before traveling if they are over 65 years of age, pregnant or have an acute or chronic illness.

Spokeswoman Cristine Pearson said the CDC was not making assumptions about whether flu cases would spike after the holidays.

"It's very unpredictable," she said. "We never really know when it's going to peak. Some years it's short and some years it's longer."


(Correspondent Linda Leavell contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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