Thursday, December 07, 2017

Get Ready Mailbag: What’s the deal with seasonal flu?

Welcome to another installment of the Get Ready Mailbag, when we take time to answer questions sent our way by readers like you. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to

Q: The flu comes along every year. Do I really have to worry about it?

A: Thanks for asking! It seems like every year we hear about the flu. But this year’s flu is not necessarily the same old flu that made everyone sick last year. Flu viruses are always changing, meaning that last year’s vaccination won’t protect you now.

States around the country are already reporting flu cases, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly map shows. This means we’re off to a stronger start to the season than last year. So the short answer is, yes, you should be concerned about the flu.

Here’s why: The flu can be more serious than you think. Aside from some typical symptoms — fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue and even vomiting and diarrhea — the flu can be deadly. Everyone can get sick but some are at greater risk, including seniors, young children and pregnant women.

More than 560 people have already been hospitalized because of flu this season in the U.S. and five children have died, CDC reports.

The best way to avoid the flu is by getting your flu shot. The flu shot won’t give you the flu, if that’s what you might be worried about. CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older get a flu shot each year. However, the flu shot isn’t for everyone. If you have an allergy or other condition that might make it unsafe, you should ask your doctor first.

To protect yourself and others around you, it is also a good idea to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, nose, mouth and eyes. Wash your hands with soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds.

Find a convenient location to get your flu shot with Healthmap Vaccine Finder. And learn even more about the flu with our Get Ready fact sheet, which is great to share at home, the office or school.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Volcanoes can be scary — and climate change can make them worse

When it comes to climate change, most people have heard about ice caps melting, sea levels rising and changes in everyday weather. But these issues only scratch the surface ― literally — as climate change is also affecting the layers of our planet.

A trail sign stops hikers from continuing along the
path toward the Halema'uma'u Crater in Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.
Photo by Townsend via Flickr/Creative Commons.
A recent study shows that climate change can cause active volcanoes to erupt. Scientists think that these eruptions are caused by changes in sea levels.

People who live near volcanoes ― which in the U.S. are mainly located in Alaska, Hawaii and in the Pacific Northwest ― are most at risk from eruptions. Right now, across the Atlantic Ocean, Mount Agung is spewing clouds of ash over the Indonesian island of Bali, threatening the health of residents and visitors.

When a volcano erupts, hot lava, poisonous gas, ash and debris can seriously harm health. They can also cause other disasters ― such as mudslides, floods, tsunamis and wildfires ― that we might not see coming. That’s why it’s important to always be prepared.

If you live near a volcano, become familiar with your community’s warning systems, evacuation routes and shelter locations now. It’s a good idea to have a battery-operated radio handy so that you can be informed and be ready to act on instructions from emergency officials. Leaving home is tough, but if officials tell you to evacuate, you should always listen to them. You should make a household evacuation plan ahead of time to make the process easier.

Next, make a plan for sheltering in place, which means quickly taking shelter and staying wherever you are. Make sure your plan includes how your family can contact one another and pick a meeting spot in case everyone is split up.

Put together an emergency stockpile with batteries, bottled water, nonperishable food, a manual can opener, a first-aid kit, a flashlight and medications. For a volcano-related emergency, you should also pack goggles, disposable face masks and sturdy shoes to protect yourself.

And if you’re taking a trip, find out if there are volcanoes in the location you’re visiting. Check with your hotel or local officials about warning systems and evacuation plans so you’ll be ready to go when told to.

For more information, check out Get Ready’s fact sheet on preparing for a volcanic eruption.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thinking about a holiday cruise? Read these tips on norovirus first for a healthy trip

Today’s guest blog post is by Janell Goodwin, a technical information specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

You may have heard the words “norovirus outbreak” and “cruise ships” in the same sentence more than a few times in the news. Norovirus is very common on cruise ships because of close living quarters. However, the majority of cases occur on land. The illness often gets brought on to cruise ships by passengers. So before you and your family pack up to go sailing the high seas, make sure you understand some of the basics of norovirus.

What is norovirus? Norovirus is a contagious virus that causes you to have stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and is often called “food poisoning” or “stomach flu.” Anyone can be infected with norovirus. In fact, it is the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it causes between 19 million and 21 million illnesses annually. Norovirus illness can be very serious, especially for young children and older adults.

How do you get norovirus? You can get norovirus from contaminated food or water, by touching contaminated surfaces, or from an infected person. The virus spreads quickly and can even float through the air and settle on surfaces. Most outbreaks occur in food service settings, like restaurants or buffets, from people touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands.

How can I prevent norovirus? You can help prevent the spread of illness by following these steps:

• Wash your hands often and carefully with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or handling food and after using the restroom.
• Wash fruits and vegetables before preparing or eating them.
• Cook seafood thoroughly before eating.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated using a chlorine bleach solution, at a ratio of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.
• Throw out food that might be contaminated.

What should I do if I get sick? Fortunately, norovirus tends to leave as quickly as it came in, usually lasting about one to three days. However, it could last as long as six days in young children, seniors and people who are immunocompromised. If you start to feel the symptoms of norovirus, be considerate of other people’s health with the following steps:

• Don’t prepare food or care for others who are sick for at least three days after symptoms stop.
• Get plenty of rest to rebuild your immune system.
• Drink lots of water to prevent dehydration.
• Stay put! Stay home — or in your room if you are on vacation or a cruise — to avoid infecting others.
• Clean and disinfect any surfaces or laundry that may be contaminated.
• If you are on a cruise, report your illness to the crew.

For more tips on safe food handling and norovirus, see USDA’s website.

Photo courtesy Pexels/Pixabay

Friday, November 17, 2017

DYK? Hot water and antimicrobial soaps are not better for washing hands

We all know the drill. Before you eat, after you use the restroom, after handling garbage — and at many other times — wash your hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Get Ready, hand-washing is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.

However, there are a lot of factors that can go into hand-washing. How long should you lather with soap? How long should you rinse? How hot should the water be? Should you use antimicrobial soaps?

According to a recent study in the Journal of Food Protection, the temperature of the water used for hand-washing doesn’t help to kill bacteria. Only boiling water — ouch! — kills bacteria. Water temperature does, however, affect how comfortable you are, and that can affect how long you wash your hands, which does have an impact.

The study found that 20 seconds of lathering was significantly better than 5 seconds of lathering. There wasn’t much difference between washing for 10 and 20 seconds. CDC recommends singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice, which lasts roughly 20 seconds, while lathering and washing. Lathering for more than 30 seconds doesn’t necessarily mean your hands will be cleaner. In fact, some studies suggest that it may spread bacteria to other surfaces.

Antimicrobial soaps are also not recommended. Normal soaps clean just as effectively while “antibacterial ingredients can do more harm than good over the long term,” according to Janet Woodcock of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Why? The use of too many antimicrobials among consumers can lead to the creation of pan-resistant bacteria, or bacteria that can’t be treated medically. If you were to ever get infected by pan-resistant bacteria, there might not yet be a cure.

For more hand-washing tips, check out Get Ready’s hand-washing page. There are great fact sheets to share with loved ones or even tape to the mirror of your employee restroom. Remember to wash your hands, use normal soap and water, and lather and rinse for 20 seconds!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Plague is not just in the past: Disease outbreak strikes Madagascar

Just when you thought plague was a thing of the past, the disease has made a comeback in Madagascar. 

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people infected by Madagascar’s plague outbreak jumped from 197 to 684 in October. Almost 100 deaths were reported. 

Most of the cases are pneumonic plague, which can easily be passed between humans through droplets in the air. That’s different from bubonic plague, which is spread by bites from infected fleas and small animals.

Although the overall threat of disease spread within Madagascar is high, the global risk is low, according to WHO. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for a disease outbreak.

If you are in an area at risk for plague and notice fever, chills, head and body aches, and weakness, vomiting and nausea, seek medical assistance. If left untreated, plague can be deadly. Fortunately, it can be treated with the help of antibiotics if they are delivered early.

To prevent the spread of plague, avoid close contact with people who are coughing and reduce time spent in crowded areas with lots of germs. If you’re traveling to Madagascar, get advice on prevention, treatment and risks from your doctor before you go. 

For more on bubonic plague, including info on areas that are most at risk in the U.S., see our Get Ready blog post.