The train might not be all you catch on the way to work this winter
There is nothing that ruins a peaceful commute to work like a sneezing, coughing groaning commuter, especially if you are stuck sitting next to them. This is a particular hazard as winter approaches – the season of red wine, open fireplaces, and the flu.
But, the process of avoiding infection need not be a joyless one. In the book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the title character makes a game of selecting her seat on the bus. Upon boarding, she explains:
“… one had ten seconds to scan the occupants and select the slimmest, sanest, cleanest-looking person to sit next to. Choose wrongly, and the fifteen-minute journey into town would be a much less pleasant experience … Such was the excitement of travelling on public transport.”
And so it is during winter commutes, except instead of girth, cleanliness or sanity, the best seat is the one next to the healthiest-looking commuter. Coughs or sneezes are obvious giveaways, but more subtle clues lie in the tint of a nose – beware the fiery red nostrils of someone whose tissues have taken on the texture of sandpaper, or a self-pitying slouch. Watery eyes are danger signs visible only to the most eagle-eyed commuter, as is a lozenge tucked into the side of a mouth.
While Eleanor Oliphant might see the error in her ways when she realises that the sane don’t always appear so, and vice versa, there is no redeeming those who board public transport with contagion.
Every year, as winter approaches, the media and health boards remind workers to stay home if they are sick. This message is particularly pertinent for commuters, pressed together in the confines of a train or bus. In Australia last year, more than 48,000 people fell ill with the flu and record numbers flooded hospital emergency departments. About 4,000 Victorian children under five were diagnosed with the flu, compared to 871 in 2016.
So, how do you tell if you have something more serious than a cold? According to Queensland Health, those who suffer from the flu rarely have a runny nose, nasal congestion, or sneeze, while those with a cold rarely suffer from a fever, headache or aches and pains.
Both a cold and the flu have an incubation period of one to three days, and you’re likely to be infectious for about five days from the time symptoms first appear.
There are ways commuters can decrease their chances of catching a cold or the flu while traveling. The Australian government’s Health Direct website suggests good hygiene was an important way of preventing the spread of the flu. This includes washing hands regularly and properly with soap and water, particularly after touching your nose or mouth, and before handling food, and avoiding touching surfaces that might harbour germs (just think of all of the commuters who hold the rails on trains). It also advises Australians to get the annual flu vaccination and to take antiviral medicines to prevent flu if you have been exposed to the virus in the previous 48 hours.
While Eleanor Oliphant might have enjoyed her game of ‘spot the best seat’, I’d prefer not to play dodge the flu every time I board the train. Whether it is a cold or the flu, commuters who suspect they are contagious should seriously consider staying home. Get some rest, or if your work can’t do without you for a couple of days until your snot dries and your chills subside, log on. At a time of internet connectivity and flexible working arrangements, many commuters have the option of working from home.
But, if you find yourself sitting next to a sniffling, shivering mess, pass a tissue, squeeze out a dab of hand sanitiser, and take heart – it is not all bad news for those who catch trains or buses to work; a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine revealed that commuters are not necessarily more likely to catch the flu. The researchers surveyed nearly 6,000 people and found that fewer people who caught public transport got ill than if they commuted another way. Apparently, commuters on public transport are exposed to more germs and so build up greater immunity.
As you board your train this evening and scan the passengers, take note of coughs and wheezes and give those seats a wide berth, but remain hopeful that your commute has made you resistant to the germ soup swirling around you.