How to Handle a Holiday with the Flu

Christmas at grandma’s house is just 24-hours away, but you’re lying in bed, sick as a dog. You don’t want to miss this important annual tradition and risk disappointing everyone. Despite our better judgment, we often drag ourselves out of bed, trudge off to our obligations and promise ourselves we won’t touch anything. Can you really get away with showing up sick? According to Susan Elsea, a ProMedica nurse specializing in infection prevention and control, the answer is no.

“The most common seasonal illnesses spread easily,” she says, pointing to influenza, colds and gastroenteritis as the biggest offenders. This means holiday gatherings can be the perfect opportunity for a bug to take up residence in someone else.

The flu is especially one to be mindful of. Even healthy adults may be able to infect other people one day before their symptoms even start, and up to seven days after becoming sick. That means even if you don’t feel sick, you could still be contagious.

According to Elsea, most relatively healthy people will recover in a few days to a few weeks after catching a bug, but others can face a much more difficult road ahead.

“Children are at a higher risk for illness, as their immune systems are not fully developed. Some children may have chronic illnesses, and some may not be vaccinated against the flu. Pregnant women and the elderly are also at high risk for complications from any illness, ” says Elsea. These complications can include bronchitis, sinus and ear infections. Pneumonia, yet another complication, can be life threatening.

In your case, maybe it’s “just a cold.” While colds can have milder symptoms, the viruses that cause them are still fairly serious. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of respiratory illness in young children. What’s worse, RSV is the leading cause of death from respiratory illness in those over 65-years-old.

Let’s say your illness doesn’t come with the typical runny nose, cough, sore throat symptoms, but is more stomach-related. Gastroenteritis is caused by many different viruses, and is accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. You might know it as the “stomach flu.” Symptoms begin one to two days after infection, and can last up to 10 days.

“Most people recover, but it becomes a serious illness for those who are at risk for dehydration, such as young children, and the elderly, or those with chronic conditions,” says Elsea.

Keeping your family uninfected isn’t just a matter of wiping down every surface with disinfectant. Something as simple as breathing the same air can make all the difference between your loved ones staying healthy and contracting an unpleasant illness.

“It is hard to keep track of what people have touched,” says Elsea. “Influenza and colds can be spread by droplets in the air that contact your mucus membranes, and in the case of GI illness, it can be spread by food the ill person made.”

Which brings us to that marshmallow fluff salad you’re thinking about sending to grandma’s in your place.

Gastroenteritis is spread by close contact with infected persons and, you guessed it, eating or drinking contaminated foods prepared by someone sick. When in doubt, leave your dish to share at home.

Quarantining yourself from holiday gatherings is definitely unpleasant. However, what you’ll regret even more is placing your loved ones in the direct path of an illness.

“If you are sick, stay home,” says Elsea. “Find other ways to share the season’s events and spread cheer that won’t risk spreading illness.”