9 Ways to Protect Yourself Against the Next Viral Outbreak

Updated: May 07, 2021

With all the news about weird, scary, and even deadly illnesses, now is the time to take extra precautions to protect yourself and your family. Here’s what the experts want you to know.

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The new diseases are scary but still rare

One of the most terrifying recent illnesses in the news is often described as a polio-like condition because it can cause sudden weakness in the limbs and even paralysis, most often in children. Since the CDC started tracking cases of acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, in 2014, there have been surges in the number of cases every couple of years, including in 2018, but the overall number of children getting sick is still incredibly small.

“What I keep saying is that this is uncommon,” says Aaron Milstone, MD, associate hospital epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The CDC has given out some statistics, like one in a million from the general population.” Check out these 15 diseases you thought were gone but aren’t.

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Avoiding infection is tricky

AFM is particularly scary because researchers don’t really know what causes it. “We can’t say it’s directly related to a viral infection, but that’s our suspicion,” Dr. Milstone says. Enteroviruses have been implicated, but the CDC is also investigating possible connections to environmental toxins and West Nile virus.

Dr. Milstone and other researchers are particularly frustrated because this uncertainty makes it difficult to figure out whether all the cases of AFM should be treated the same way, and it’s very hard to know how best to prevent the condition. “That’s kind of the challenge we’re all working on now,” he says. “How can we advance the science around it, and help both prevent [the condition] and treat patients that all have AFM clinically but may have different causes and/or different clinical presentations?”

Young boy having his eyes checked

Enteroviruses usually cause only mild illness

The most direct links to AFM that have been established so far are with two viruses, Dr. Milstone says: enterovirus A71, which usually causes illnesses such as hand, foot, and mouth disease, and enterovirus D68, which typically causes respiratory illnesses that only tend to be severe in children with asthma or weakened immune systems.

Because researchers don’t know why a few kids who get these viruses go on to develop the weakness and paralysis of AFM, the CDC has published an infographic showing the symptoms to watch out for: difficulty moving the eyes, droopy eyelids, facial droop, swallowing difficulty, slurred speech, or sudden arm or leg weakness. Getting medical care right away is important because although there is currently no cure for the disease, doctors can provide supportive care to keep the child comfortable and can start his or her rehabilitation.

Red spot on hand. Hand, foot and mouth disease of kid. Herpangina disease, HFMD. second day of infection.
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Hand, foot, and mouth disease is common

Another viral illness that’s made headlines this fall is hand, foot, and mouth disease. Although the condition—characterized by spots and blisters on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, along with mouth sores—is typically seen rampaging through day-care centers and kindergartens, this year it’s been identified on college campuses.

Multiple viruses can cause hand, foot, and mouth disease. “Most adults have seen these viruses before as kids, and their immune systems remember that and may give them some partial protection,” Dr. Milstone says. “But there are some people who haven’t been exposed, and some who can get sick again.” Typically, hand, foot, and mouth disease is a mild illness, but Dr. Milstone cautions that a child who stops drinking because of painful mouth sores might get dehydrated, which is always dangerous. “It’s often an inconvenience for many families, but it can put kids in the hospital for sure,” he says. Make sure you don’t have these 10 germ-spreading habits.

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Practice basic hygiene

The simplest solution is still the best way to stay safe from viruses: Wash your hands thoroughly and often, and follow other commonsense rules: “Coughing into your sleeve obviously doesn’t contaminate your hand,” Dr. Milstone says. “And try to keep your hands off your face as much as possible” to avoid introducing any germs you do pick up to your eyes, nose, or mouth, where they can make you sick. Watch out for these 10 handwashing mistakes everyone makes.

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Be wary of the little ones

“Good hygiene is a good recommendation for adults, but it’s a little harder for young children to follow,” Dr. Milstone says, as anyone who has spent time with children knows. “The way viruses get transmitted is usually through cross-contaminated objects. If your kids are sharing toys that are getting put in their mouths, there’s a risk that they’re going to get an infection.”

Dr. Milstone suggests that caregivers for children focus on trying to get them to wash their hands before eating. “There’s no 100 percent avoidance,” he says. “Some of this depends on parents whose kids do have a febrile illness not sending them places where they’re going to expose other kids.” Check out these 10 hygiene mistakes that are making kids sick.

A medical stethoscope in a doctor's pocket

Be aware of the risk that hospitals pose

One of the most frightening viral outbreaks to hit the news this fall was a cluster of adenovirus cases at a New Jersey health-care facility where 10 children died and more than 20 others became ill. All of these pediatric patients had serious medical issues that made them vulnerable to the infection. Adenoviruses usually cause mild illnesses, ranging from coldlike symptoms to diarrhea and pink eye. “They’re very common viruses in kids,” Dr. Milstone says. “Anytime someone has a chronic medical condition or has a weakened immune system, they’re going to be at risk for more severe disease, even if they get a common virus.”

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Don’t be shy about infection control

Because the risk from viral infections is typically higher for patients in hospitals or nursing homes, Dr. Milstone says that families should feel comfortable monitoring a facility’s infection-control measures. “I would never be offended if a family member said, ‘We didn’t see you wash your hands when you walked into the room,'” he says. “I might say that I washed them outside, but I’m happy to do it again. That just shows they’re advocating for their loved one, whether it’s a child or a parent or a grandparent.” (These are the best air purifiers for viruses you can have in your home.)

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Don’t be a vector

Dr. Milstone also encourages families of vulnerable patients to be very aware of their own hygiene practices. “If you have a runny nose or a fever or diarrhea, and you go to visit someone in a nursing home or a long-term care facility or an acute-care facility like a hospital, you’re putting that person at risk by bringing that into the environment,” Dr. Milstone says. “And you’re exposing not only that person but also other patients in the facility.” And even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms of illness, he says you should be very careful about washing your hands before you touch a patient—just like the doctors and staffers do. Take note of these 7 cleaning mistakes that leave your house germy.


Get vaccinated

Although there’s no vaccination that can protect against the common viruses that can cause unusual illnesses like AFM or the New Jersey adenovirus outbreak, many well-known diseases can be avoided. Measles, for example, has been confirmed in at least half the states in the United States so far this year, according to the CDC. This is despite the fact that a vaccine has been available since the 1960s, and the CDC considered the disease effectively eliminated in the United States in 2000.

The problem? Parents resisting vaccination because they are badly misinformed about the lifesaving shots. Clusters this year in Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York, have spread among Orthodox Jewish communities where vaccination levels have been low, for example. “People that are able to get vaccinated need to get vaccinated, period,” Dr. Milstone says. “Measles can cause terrible disease in kids and adults.” Check out these 10 vaccine myths to ignore.


Take extra care when traveling

The New York measles cases are thought to have been brought to the community by members who had traveled internationally—Europe has had many cases of the disease this year, and Israel is in the midst of a major outbreak. Check the CDC’s travel health website for suggestions for shots to get before you travel to a foreign country, and discuss your trip with your doctor, especially if you’re going to a developing country where diseases like yellow fever are still a risk. Also look into these 9 vaccines and medications before a big trip.

Close-up shot of microscope with metal lens at laboratory.
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Don’t forget about common viruses

Although news about outbreaks of polio-like AFM and deadly adenovirus are terrifying, don’t forget about good old-fashioned influenza, which typically starts showing up in the fall and lasts through the spring. “People get complacent,” Dr. Milstone says. During the 2017-2018 flu season, about 80,000 Americans died, according to CDC estimates, including 180 children. Avoid these 14 things you should not do if you have the flu.

Doctor performs vaccination on young girl

Get your flu shot

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months get vaccinated against the flu. And if you get sick despite having gotten the shot (it can take a few weeks to develop full protection, and the vaccination doesn’t always effectively protect against all of the different influenza strains circulating in a season), see your doctor right away for medications that can ease symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. “If you haven’t gotten your vaccine, now is a great time,” Dr. Milstone says. “The CDC recommends getting it by the end of October, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late.” Now read about these 50 ways to avoid picking up germs this winter.