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How much do you really know about preventing infections?
We’re deep into virus season. Even as COVID-19 surges, we still have colds and flus to think about. Take our short quiz to make sure you know how to protect yourself.
If viruses had a walk of fame, you could probably rattle off which ones would have their own (black) stars: Ebola, polio, HIV. And let’s not forget about HPV, the common cold and influenza, which kills an average of 36,000 people in the U.S each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Then there’s COVID-19, of course. So far it's claimed more than 5 million lives globally, according to the World Health Organization.
For as much as viruses affect (and infect) us, it’s important to know a little bit about how they work. More important, you should know how to avoid them. This quiz can help. It’s designed to test your virus IQ so that you’re better able to defend yourself against infection.
If you do get sick — be it from a virus or otherwise — Optum Perks may be able to help. Download our mobile app to search for discounts of up to 80% off on prescription medication.
For the questions below, try to answer on your own before scrolling down to see whether you’re correct.
1. Are viruses alive?
Viruses are complicated, and there’s no expert consensus about whether they should be considered “alive.”
On one hand, they’re made from protein and genetic code, either DNA or RNA. That sounds like life. But unlike you, a cricket or an amoeba, viruses have no metabolism, according to the Microbiology Society. Equally important, they can’t reproduce on their own.
In order to replicate, viruses must enter a living cell and reprogram it to spit out more viral genetic code. It’s a clever survival strategy. But does it count as life? That boils down to a complicated question: What does it actually mean to be alive?
2. Which medication might a doctor prescribe for a viral infection?
Did you pick A, penicillin? If so, you made the common mistake of thinking an antibiotic can treat a viral infection. Antibiotics are great for killing bacteria. But per the CDC, they’re useless against viral infections.
Truth is, most viruses have no cure. Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu can only slow the progression or treat the symptoms. You’re better off avoiding infection altogether. “Vaccination and measures to reduce exposure such as wearing masks are the best ways we have currently to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19],” says Eugene Liu, MD. He's an infectious disease specialist from Northern Light Infectious Disease Care in Bangor, Maine.
Unfortunately, doctors often prescribe antibiotics for viral infections. According to the CDC, this can lead to antibiotic resistance and unnecessary side effects such as dizziness or diarrhea. (Before taking an antibiotic, ask these 4 questions.)
3. Which month is historically the worst for flu?
Flu tends to start picking up in October. And most years, it builds steadily throughout the winter. After looking at nearly 40 years of flu seasons, the CDC determined that February was the worst flu month 45% of the time. No other month was even half as close.
Why does the flu strike hardest in winter? It’s likely the collision of several factors, including the fact that people are spending more time indoors. And research has shown that the dry air combined with cold temperatures enables viral transmission.
That makes hygiene and flu-prevention strategies even more important during winter.
4. Which of these are recognized ways to avoid a viral infection?
A. Wash your hands
B. Get vaccinated
D. All of the above
There’s no way to reduce your risk of infection to zero. But with good habits, you can bring it down significantly.
In terms of flu, an annual vaccine decreases the risk of illness by between 40% to 60%, according to the CDC. And regular handwashing further reduces the risk. (Check out these wild facts about dirty hands.)
You may be surprised to see exercise on the list of proven preventive measures. But physical activity helps keep your immune system strong. Adults who regularly exercise are 31% less likely to get an infectious disease, according to research published in the journal Sports Medicine.
Other ways to prevent viral spread, according to the CDC, include:
- Keeping your distance from people who are sick
- Staying home when you’re sick
- Covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth
5. How long do you need to wash your hands?
A. 10 seconds
B. 20 seconds
C. 3 minutes
D. Any amount of time, as long as you use soap
To remove viruses from your hands, you should wash for at least 20 seconds, says the CDC. After wetting your hands, turn the faucet off and lather. Rub your hands together and scrub everywhere, including the spaces between your fingers and under your nails. Then rinse with warm or cold water — the temperature isn’t important — and dry completely.
If you’re away from the sink, you can also use hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol, which can kill a wide range of germs on contact.
6. Why do you need a flu shot every year?
A. Because the vaccine becomes less effective over time
B. Because the virus changes every year
C. Because the vaccine protects vulnerable people in your community
D. All of the above
According to the CDC, there are 2 reasons last year’s flu shot may not work for you this year.
First, immunity from the vaccine declines over time. And second, viruses change. “Virus mutations occur when there are errors in how the virus makes copies of itself,” Dr. Liu says. And some of those errors lead to new versions of the virus.
Some viruses, such as influenza, change very fast, which is why the flu vaccine is recommended every year. SARS-CoV-2, on the other hand, is armed with a “proofreading enzyme, which means it acquires about 2 mutations a month in its genome,” Dr. Liu says. “Which is less than that of influenza and HIV.”
For influenza, health authorities update vaccines annually in anticipation of emerging strains. So the shot you get this year will be different than the one you received last year.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that vaccination isn’t just to help you. It also protects those around you. The existence of “herd immunity” means that when more people are vaccinated, those who are unvaccinated and those with weaker immune systems are less likely to get infected.
To illustrate the point, a study published in Nature Medicine looked at the rate of COVID-19 infections in unvaccinated children. The researchers found that for every 20-percentage-point increase in the share of 16- to 50-year-olds who were vaccinated, the share of unvaccinated children who tested positive for the virus dropped by half.
7. All viruses are bad
Bad viruses tend to attract the most attention, but according to a paper published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, there are trillions of viruses living inside of you. This is called the human virome, and researchers are still largely in the dark about how it works.
But interestingly, some viruses are showing promise in treating diseases. Researchers are looking into the possibility of using viruses to attack antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Other viruses engineered to kill cancer cells are already being used to treat a form of skin cancer, and they are being tested as treatments for other cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Bottom line? Not all viruses are nasty. That’s not much comfort if you’re sick, however. So use the Optum Perks discount card to save money on prescription medication. Just present it at the pharmacy to see if a better price is available.
Flu data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
COVID-19 global death toll: World Health Organization
February is the worst month for flu: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Flu vaccine is 40% to 60% affective: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Herd immunity study: Nature Medicine (2021). “Community-level evidence for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine protection of unvaccinated individuals”