With the reemergence of H1N1 influenza (“swine flu”) in the MIT community this fall, an increasing number of undergraduates will be faced with a roommate who is ill. Since MIT does not have space to provide alternate accommodations for sick students or their healthy roommates, and since illnesses can spread quickly in high-density areas such as dorms and other living groups, it’s especially important for residents to take special precautions to prevent the spread of flu.
But first of all, says MIT Medical Chief of Medicine Howard Heller, M.D., M.P.H., don’t panic. “Influenza is contagious,” he says, “but not everyone who has been exposed to the virus becomes ill, and having a sick roommate does not mean that you will get sick, too—especially if you take precautions now.”
Here’s what you can do to stay healthy:
Clean your hands. All persons sharing living quarters with someone who is ill, especially those who must come in close contact with the sick person, should clean their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub frequently and after every contact with the sick person.
Don’t share towels. Use paper towels to dry your hands after washing them, or use a cloth towel that isn’t shared with anyone else. If each person has a towel of a different color, you’re less likely to get mixed up.
Clean common surfaces. Influenza viruses, including the H1N1 virus, are spread mainly through uncovered coughs and sneezes. Respiratory droplets containing the virus can end up on doorknobs, keyboards, and other surfaces. A person may become sick through touching a contaminated surface, and then touching his or her eyes, mouth, or nose.
Since the influenza virus can survive on environmental surfaces for two to eight hours, it’s a good idea to clean surfaces that you share with the sick person, such as door knobs, telephones, and bathroom surfaces. Use a standard household disinfectant. Wash your hands after cleaning the area.
Be helpful, but safe. Don’t be afraid to help out your roommate while he or she is ill. You can offer to pick up some Kleenex or drop off a P-set, but try to avoid close contact with your sick roommate. If you are washing used linens (such as bed sheets and towels) for the sick person, use household laundry soap and tumble dry on a hot setting. Avoid “hugging” laundry while carrying it to the washing machine to prevent self-contamination. Clean your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub right after handling dirty laundry. Dirty dishes and eating utensils should be washed in a dishwasher or by hand with warm water and soap.
Remind sick roommates to keep their germs to themselves. It’s okay to remind a sick roommate (nicely, of course!) to take steps to prevent spreading his or her illness to others. The sick person should remember to cover coughs and sneezes and to clean his or her hands frequently (especially after coughing, sneezing, or tossing a used tissue in the trash). The sick person should also wear a mask any time he or she might come into close contact (within six feet) of others or when using common areas, like the bathroom. If your sick roommate is not covering sneezes and coughs, you should consider wearing a mask when you are within close proximity.
Following these precautions will lessen your risk of becoming ill, but if you are sharing living quarters with a sick roommate, you should monitor yourself closely for the development of influenza-like symptoms for seven days after contact with the sick person. If you develop a fever, cough, or sore throat, call MIT Medical at 617-253-4481 to report your illness and get advice.
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