While jolly old St. Nick is making his list and checking it twice, there is another not-so-jolly creature who has been making the rounds across the county — the respiratory infection (a.k.a. the cold and flu virus).

According to information provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the germs that cause respiratory infections — so named because of their effect on the nose, throat and lungs — are spread from person-to-person by very small droplets that are sent through the air when a sick person coughs, sneezes, and talks.

Some viruses also can be spread when a person touches a surface with the virus on it (for example, a door handle) and then touches his or her nose or mouth.

“Respiratory etiquette” is the newest phrase in healthcare circles, and refers to taking common-sense steps to prevent the spread of germs from person to person.

Washing hands thoroughly and often is the most important way to prevent catching germs and spreading germs to others and to prevent many communicable diseases.

Use warm water and soap and scrub the hands for about 20 seconds. Dry hands with a clean, disposable towel. Use an alcohol-based hand cleaner when soap and water are not available.

To prevent catching germs from others:

l Wash hands before eating, or touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.

l Wash hands after touching anyone who is sneezing, coughing, or blowing nose, or has a runny nose. This is true especially for those who are taking care of someone ill.

l Wash hands after using the restroom.

l Do not share towels, lipstick, toys, cigarettes, food, eating utensils, drinking glasses, or anything else that might be contaminated with respiratory germs.

l Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

l Avoid when possible closed, crowded spaces.

To protect others from catching germs:

• Wash hands often when sick.

• Cover mouth and nose with tissue every time you sneeze, blow your nose, or cough. Do not use handkerchiefs.

• Put used tissues into the nearest trash can after using.

• If you do not have a tissue, use your sleeve to cover your mouth and nose. Do not use your bare hands.

• Always wash your hands after sneezing, blowing your nose, or coughing, or after touching used tissues.

• When visiting your doctor or clinic, notify the receptionist if you have a fever with cough or rash. They may ask you to wear a mask or wait in a separate area.

• Stay home if you have a cough and fever. Keep away from family members who are very young, very old, or have a serious disease or weak immune system.

• Because cold viruses can survive for hours outside the body, cleaning surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant (such as a 1 part household bleach to nine parts water solution) might help prevent spread of infection.

According to the DSHS, millions of people get sick with influenza (the flu) every year — usually during the winter months — causing an average of 36,000 deaths and, according to a recent update by the Centers for Disease Control, over 200,000 hospitalizations each year.

Other respiratory infections include diseases such as whooping cough, measles, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and tuberculosis. Germs called bacteria and viruses cause these infections.

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