Even when flu patients aren't sneezing, they can still spread the virus as far as six feet away, according to a new study from the Wake Forest School of Medicine.
The study also showed that some people, who researchers called "super-emitters," emit more of the virus than others. The findings are hugely important for people working in the health and medical fields who have regular contact with flu-infected people -- and how they protect themselves from becoming infected.
"Our study provides new evidence that infectiousness may vary between influenza patients and questions the current medical understanding of how influenza spreads," study researcher Dr. Werner Bischoff, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist, said in a statement. "Based on our findings, doctors and nurses may need to wear a fitted respirator even for routine care of flu patients as opposed to just the non-fitted, surgical facemask currently recommended."
The study, published in the Journal of Infectious Disease, included 94 people, 61 of whom were infected with the flu virus. Of those infected without the flu virus, 43 percent emitted flu virus in the air, and 19 percent emitted a lot of flu virus in the air (32 times more than others, known as the "super-emitters"). The researcher found that the "super-emitters" also had more of the virus in their snot samples, and experienced worse flu symptoms.
Researchers took air samples around the flu patients, and found flu virus present in the area up to six feet away from the patients' heads.
Right now, health workers who care for flu patients wear masks to protect themselves when the patients engage in "aerosol-generating procedures," such as CPR, intubation and bronchoscopy. But in this new study, researchers found that these health workers may want to wear a mask even when the patient isn't engaging in these aerosol-generating procedures.
It's important to note that the study didn't examine whether the flu particles from the patients actually infected other people. But it does tell us that it's probably a good idea to be extra cautious around those who are sick!