Mesothelioma and the Flu: What Every Caregiver Should Know

Washing hands with soap under running water

Caregiving for a loved one with mesothelioma or other types of cancer is a huge undertaking and one which comes with a number of responsibilities,
including safeguarding them from catching infectious diseases which may further harm their health.

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is one such disease.

Outbreaks of the flu occur every year, but their timing and the severity is unpredictable, and can vary from season to season, as well as its impact in different regions of the same country.

Flu activity in the U.S. commonly peaks in January or February. However, seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October and continue to occur as late as May.

Individuals with immune systems weakened by serious illnesses, like mesothelioma or another cancer, and those over the age of 65 are at a higher risk of complications from the flu.

Health professionals advise anyone who has cancer, or who has had cancer in the past, to safeguard themselves against the flu by getting a seasonal flu shot.

Caregivers and close family members should also have a seasonal flu shot to prevent themselves from contracting the illness and passing it on to those who they care for.

Why Should Cancer Patients, Caregivers Take Flu Seriously?

Some people think they do not need to take extra precautions because they associate the flu with the common cold. This can have serious repercussions.

The flu is highly contagious, and easily spread through talking, coughing, sneezing and touching surfaces contaminated with secretions expelled by someone already infected by it. Influenza can be fatal, and is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in America.

Difference Between the Flu, Common Cold

While the common cold and flu have similar symptoms, there are signs which will help you to distinguish between the two.

Chart with flu and cold symptoms

While this chart provides a quick go-to reference, you should always consult your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

How the Flu Spreads

The flu spreads when you inhale air droplets contaminated by the virus, which can survive for some time in various places and surfaces, including:

  • An hour in elevators and other enclosed rooms often filled with people.
  • More than 8 hours on stainless steel, plastic and other hard surfaces like escalator rails, elevator buttons, and shopping cart handles.
  • Up to 15 minutes when transferred from a tissue to someone’s hands.

People who don’t know they have the flu can transfer it to others unwittingly.

Adults can be contagious one day before symptoms show, and continue to be contagious for up to five days after becoming ill.

Precautions When Caregiving Someone with Mesothelioma

  • Vaccination: The first line of defense against the flu, and it is strongly advised that caregiver and cancer patient be vaccinated.
  • Avoid Crowds: During the flu season, try to avoid crowded places as often as possible.
  • Care in Public Places: It’s almost impossible to avoid touching surfaces already touched by countless, and likely contaminated by people before you, unless you wear gloves all the time. Try not to place your hands anywhere near your mouth when you’re in public, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you return home. Washing your hands thoroughly does not mean placing your hands under running water for a few seconds. Encourage your patient to do the same.
  • Coughing: Don’t use your hands when sneezing or coughing, instead cough into your sleeve.
  • Disinfectant: Clean surfaces, hand rails, countertops and other surfaces with a strong disinfectant.

Effective Hand-Washing

Health officials recommend the correct way to wash your hands is to scrub them thoroughly with soap and warm water for a full 20 seconds. All parts of the hand should be scrubbed, including the back and front of each hand, between all fingers and around all finger nails.

Singing the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” twice in your head is a good trick to make sure you take at least 20 seconds to wash your hands. This handy hint was passed on to me by the nursing staff of a hospital I once worked at, and I have used it ever since.

Washing with water alone is not sufficient, soap must be used at all times and it doesn’t matter which soap you choose. Regular soap is just as effective as antibacterial soap when it comes to preventing the spread of germs.

Keeping yourself from catching the flu, and understanding how it affects those with mesothelioma will help steer the illness clear of your loved one.

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Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer.

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