The Flu is Even More Contagious Than you Think

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDApril 30th, 2021

When it comes time for flu season, it’s important to do everything you can to protect yourself before you get sick. Maybe you consider yourself pretty healthy and aren’t concerned about catching the flu, but even healthy individuals can contract this sometimes deadly disease. That’s because the flu is often more contagious than you think.

The 2019-2020 influenza outbreak was not only severe, but drawn out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 21-week season from October-May was the longest in 10 years. Additionally, more than 600,000 people sought treatment for the flu in emergency rooms. As people traveled to ERs and hospitals with chills, body aches, fever, headache and other symptoms, everyone within 6 feet of an infected individual was at risk of contracting the illness. It is worth noting that the 2020-2021 influenza season was dramatically less severe than the year prior, thought to be due to measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The infection can be especially dangerous to the very young, the very old, and those with other chronic illnesses. Because the flu is so common and can be deadly to so many in your community, it’s important that everyone understands how to prevent infection. Read on for answers to your questions about how contagious the flu is and how the flu is spread.

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How is the Flu Spread?

Some viruses require intimate contact or an exchange of bodily fluids in order to spread. Others can be spread by any skin-to-skin contact—even something as innocent as a handshake. The flu is far easier to spread, requiring no contact at all.

It’s also possible to spread the flu via surface contact. If a sick person coughs into their hand and then touches a doorknob or other surface, those who touch that same surface after and then touch their face can become infected.

How Contagious is the Flu?

Did you know that a person with the flu can infect someone up to 6 feet away? Most people believe that the flu can only be spread through a cough or sneeze, but in reality, that’s not the case. Experts believe that the flu can actually be spread via respiratory droplets by simply speaking or breathing through the mouth, making it super contagious.

That’s why it’s so important to recover from the flu at home when you’re only experiencing mild symptoms. The CDC recommends avoiding contact with others during recovery to avoid spreading the virus. There are exceptions, however; if any of the following apply to you, you should seek medical attention:

  • Your symptoms are moderate to severe
  • You’re in a high-risk group, such as young children, pregnant women, older adults, or people with certain pre-existing conditions
  • You’re worried about your illness

Click here to read up on the emergency warning signs of the flu in children and adults. If you or your child are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek urgent medical care. But if your illness is mild, recovering at home will keep others in your community safe from contracting the virus.

The Flu Shot Helps

Before and during flu season, your doctor likely encourages you to get the flu shot. Many people are hesitant to get this vital vaccination due to rumors of family or friends getting sick after receiving a flu shot; but this is not accurate. The flu shot can’t give you the flu. Some people report developing flu-like symptoms after being vaccinated, but this is likely due to another reason such as an adverse reaction to the shot, catching the flu before the vaccine becomes effective, or other illnesses.

The flu shot is not always 100% effective, sometimes due to mismatched flu viruses in which the virus strains used for the vaccine don’t match the virus strains spreading in the community. However, even in these circumstances, getting the flu shot will still increase your protection against contracting the flu. Refraining from getting vaccinated can unnecessarily result in an increased risk of getting the flu and all of its complications, as well as contributing to community spread.

How to Prevent the Spread

The absolute best way to prevent infecting others, once you know you’re sick, is to avoid social encounters. It’s recommended that people with the flu remain home for at least a week and only venture out if necessary to obtain medical care. And if you do have to leave home, wear a mask, since we know the flu is very contagious and quick to spread even without person-to-person contact.

Here are additional steps you can take to prevent getting and spreading the flu:

  • Do the “vampire cough.” Cross your arm over your face when you sneeze or cough, like a vampire pulling his cloak across to shield the sunlight. In doing so, you’ll prevent the virus from spreading via airborne particles. Alternatively, use a tissue. No matter which method you choose, just be sure to cover your mouth and nose!
  • Wash your hands frequently. From using your hands to cover coughs to unavoidable contact with door knobs and other common surfaces, your hands constantly come into contact with germs. And when you don’t wash your hands, those germs can be transferred to food and drink, whether for yourself or others. Avoid catching the flu from a contaminated surface—and spreading the flu unknowingly—by washing your hands often with warm water and soap. Wash for at least 20 seconds, or about the time it takes you to sing the “Happy Birthday” song in your head twice!
  • Avoid touching your face. We all touch our faces throughout the day, from a quick scratch to adjusting makeup to covering a yawn. One study showed that a group of office workers touched their face as many as 16 times an hour! But during flu season, try to stay vigilant and avoid touching your face as much as possible to prevent contracting the flu virus. Pro tips to make this easier: change the way you sit so you’re not resting your face on the palm of your hand, tie your hair back, and make sure your glasses fit well!

How Long Are the Sick Contagious?

For most healthy adults, the possibility of spreading flu germs begins a full day before getting sick. This means that we should all be careful about spreading germs, whether we feel ill or not. Additionally, adults can pass on the virus up to a full week after becoming sick, while children can pass it even longer.

It’s not uncommon for flu sufferers to return to their normal routine as soon as symptoms begin to abate, even though it’s not a good idea. As much as you want to get back to normal, you certainly don’t want to infect your friends, relatives, and coworkers. Instead, be sure to wait the full week before going back to work or socializing with friends.


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Get Treatment at Home

Get Treatment at Home
If you’re sick and need medical treatment, but don’t want to risk infecting an entire waiting room full of people at your local clinic, what can you do? The simple solution is to get your healthcare delivered.

DispatchHealth travels so the flu doesn’t. If you’re feeling flu-like symptoms, call 1-866-FLU-CREW. We’ll send a team of qualified medical professionals to your home to administer a rapid flu test, provide IV fluids, order mobile chest X-rays, prescribe anti-nausea medication, and more. And we do all of this in direct communication with your primary care physicians to ensure an integrated care experience. We see patients of all ages, from the very young to older adults—segments of the population often considered at the highest risk of experiencing dangerous or life-threatening flu complications.

Sounds expensive, right? DispatchHealth is actually partnered with most major insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, and handles billing directly with those companies. In fact, a visit with DispatchHealth typically costs one-tenth of the price of a visit to the ER, and patients pay an average of $5-$50 depending on their insurance plan.

In addition to flu, we can treat a wide variety of non-life-threatening conditions including everything from sports injuries and urinary tract infections to high blood pressure and migraines. So if you need medical care for other concerns during flu season, you can avoid sharing a waiting room with those who may be contagious.

Staying home when you’re sick should be the standard of care. So the next time you’re in need of urgent medical care, skip the emergency room or clinic, give DispatchHealth a call, and get on the road to recovery quickly without ever getting on the road at all.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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