Protecting yourself and others

Page last updated: 07 November 2012

In general, influenza viruses are spread in two ways:

  1. Respiratory droplets from an infected person's coughs or sneezes (these droplets generally travel less than one metre); and
  2. Touching contaminated surfaces (including hands) and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
People may be contagious from one day before they develop symptoms to up to seven days after they get sick, although contagiousness declines rapidly after five days.

Children, especially younger children, might be contagious for longer periods.

Flu viruses can survive on some hard surfaces for up to two days. You should regularly clean frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, taps, tables, benches and fridge doors. Flu viruses can be inactivated and removed with normal household detergents.

Flu viruses can survive on unwashed hands for 30 minutes, and on cloth, paper and tissues for up to 12 hours. This is why it is important to always wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, and to dispose of used tissues in a bin straight away.

Respiratory droplet and contact spread are the major modes of transmission in the community, but specific procedures within the medical setting may lead to generation of aerosols (particles suspended in the atmosphere), requiring specific precautions in these settings.

The best protection you can afford yourself and others is to get vaccinated against the pandemic influenza. This will reduce the chances of you getting and transmitting the disease. However, the development of a pandemic vaccine takes time, during which the virus may already be circulating in the community and even people who have been vaccinated can pass the virus on if they touch objects contaminated by an infected person.

You can minimise the spread of the pandemic influenza in your household and in the community by maintaining good household and personal hygiene, avoiding close contact from others (at least 1 metre apart) if you or they are ill, and covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

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Five simple ways to prevent the spread of pandemic influenza:

1. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough

The flu virus can travel through the air when a person coughs or sneezes. When you cough or sneeze you should:
  • Turn away from other people
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve
  • Use disposable tissues rather than a handkerchief (which could store the virus)
  • Put used tissues into the nearest bin, rather than a pocket or handbag
  • Wash your hands, or use an alcohol hand rub, as soon as possible afterwards.
People who are sick should always be encouraged to wear a surgical mask to contain the virus and help prevent its spread.

2. Wash your hands

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based product (gels, rinses, foams) that doesn't require water - even when they aren't visibly dirty. This is the single most effective way of killing the flu virus. Either of these methods is effective, with products available at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Always wash your hands:
  • after you've been to the toilet
  • after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • after being in contact with someone who has a cold or flu
  • before touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • before preparing food and eating.
To wash your hands properly
Set of 4 images depicting correct procedure for washing hands.
3. Don't share personal items

The flu virus can spread when someone touches an object with the virus on it and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

If a member of your household has the flu:
  • keep personal items, such as towels, bedding and toothbrushes separate
  • do not share eating and drinking utensils, food or drinks.
4. Clean surfaces

Flu viruses can live on surfaces for several hours. If a member of your household has the flu, you should regularly clean surfaces such as tables, benches, fridge doors and door knobs with soap and water or detergent.

5. Avoid close contact with others if you are unwell with flu

Keeping your distance from others by standing or sitting back (at least one metre apart, where possible) will help reduce the chances of spreading the flu virus between people.

While you are unwell you should remain at home and avoid going out in public. If you are unwell, you should not go to work or school or attend other public or crowded gatherings, and avoid taking public transport. If you need to use public transport, it is recommended that you wear a mask to contain the virus.

Do not visit people who have the flu unless it is absolutely necessary.

If a member of your household has the flu, he or she should be separated from other members of the family if possible, and be encouraged to wear a surgical mask. If you are caring for someone who has the flu, you too should wear a mask and gloves when in close contact to protect yourself from catching the flu.

Antivirals and vaccines may have some effectiveness in preventing the development of infection in people exposed to the influenza virus.

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Personal protective equipment

If a pandemic becomes widespread in the community, authorities may encourage people who are not sick to wear a mask or other covering for the nose and mouth to help protect them from catching the virus. It is particularly important for people who are sneezing or coughing to also wear a mask if possible to prevent the spread of infection to others.

If you run a business or community organisation, you might want to take proactive measures to help stop the spread of infection by providing tissues and 'no-touch' bins, soap or alcohol-based products for your clients, and post up signs to remind people about good hygiene practices. Posters and information brochures can be downloaded from this web site.

If you own birds

Many people keep poultry and other types of birds, and while the risk of bird flu reaching our shores is low, all owners need to remain vigilant for signs of disease. There are simple steps you can take to help protect your birds from all diseases, including bird flu. See the Department of Agriculture(external link) for more information. Remember always to practise good hygiene and wash your hands with soap and water after handling birds.

Preparing your household

There are several things you can do now that will help you be prepared, should a pandemic occur:
  • Have plans in place for if you and your family have to stay at home for a week or so during a pandemic. Talk to your family and friends about this
  • If you live alone; are a single parent of young children; or are the only person caring for a frail or disabled person, think of someone you could call upon for help if you become very ill with the flu. Discuss with the person what help you might need and how that could best be provided
  • Think of someone you could call on to care for your children if their school or daycare centre were to close during a pandemic but you still had to go to work. Discuss this with them
  • Have a telephone network for you and the people who live close by
  • Put the phone number of your family doctor and your state or territory health information line in a prominent place
  • Think of someone who could help you with food and other supplies if you and your family were sick and could not leave the house
  • Teach children about hand washing and cough etiquette
  • Think about supplies you might need in a pandemic. The Australian food and grocery sector has prepared an emergency pantry list for households (external link).