Chlorine Bleach: Helping to Manage the Flu Risk

Every fall, millions of Americans rush to be vaccinated against the influenza virus, or “flu,” in the hope of avoiding the worst of the seasonal symptoms of fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, runny nose, congestion and muscle aches. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent this disease.

A sound risk management plan for avoiding flu infection maximizes all known preventive measures, including “flu shots” for everyone six months old and older, frequent hand washing and smart use of a common household product–chlorine bleach.

A Flu Risk Management Plan

  • Obtain the flu vaccine, preferably in October or November.
  • Cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water and long enough to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice.
  • Disinfect surfaces with diluted chlorine bleach solution (1/4 cup per gallon water).
  • Remind children to practice healthy habits.

How Viruses Operate and Propagate

A virus consists of a small collection of genetic material surrounded by a protective protein shell. As very simple microbes, viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but only by “hijacking” various living host cells, including bacteria, plant, animal and human.

Viruses inject their genetic material into the DNA of host cells and manipulate them to manufacture millions of new virus particles. And to ensure the efficient spread of the newly produced virus particles, the coughing and sneezing of human flu sufferers send droplets of virus-laden mucous streaming into the air and onto human skin, including mouths or noses of people nearby, and other surfaces. Dr. Dennis Clements, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Duke University, estimates that a single sneeze can send flu-infested water droplets as far as three feeti.

Equipped with a mode of transportation to new, fertile host cells, the virus thrives, even if, statistically speaking, most organisms fight the infection successfully. Most important to the virus’ survival, it is on the move, ever seeking and infecting new hosts.

Outsmarting the Flu Virus With Chlorine Bleach

Although viruses require live host cells to multiply and spread, they can live on inanimate surfaces for up to two hours or more, giving them a convenient window of opportunity to be picked up by unsuspecting organisms, namely, us. Likely points of infection are commonly touched surfaces: doorknobs, desks, counters, dials and handles. Managing the viral populations on these surfaces is an effective way to cut down on the spread of flu. Chlorine bleach is a logical germ-busting, readily available product to turn to for this task. It works by penetrating the protective shells of viruses.

An EPA-registered chlorine bleach solution or a dilute solution of regular laundry bleach (1/4 cup of bleach in a gallon of cool water) is an effective and inexpensive all-purpose disinfectant, used commonly in homes and healthcare facilities. Some health clubs keep spray bottles of chlorine bleach solution on hand for members to use to disinfect exercise equipment. The active ingredient in chlorine bleach, sodium hypochlorite, is one of the chlorine disinfectants routinely added to municipal drinking water to control waterborne disease. Since the introduction of water chlorination to the U.S. in 1908, death rates due to typhoid fever, cholera and hepatitis A have declined dramatically. In addition to water disinfection, chlorine bleach solutions are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for use in safe food production, including food preparation and service in healthcare facility kitchens and cafeterias. Chlorine bleach is used routinely to kill common food pathogens such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli.

The Chlorine Bleach Surface Disinfectant formula

¼ cup chlorine bleach 1 gallon cool water

Mix and apply to surfaces. Leave wet for 10 minutes. Rinse.

A recent study by the National Institute of Nursing Research showed that hot water and bleach are more effective in reducing viral infections, such as flu, than antibacterial products. This is not unexpected because antibacterial products work only on bacteria, whereas bleach destroys both viruses and bacteria. According to the study’s author, Dr. Elaine Larson, PhD, RN, Associate Dean for Research at Columbia University’s School of Nursing, households reporting bleach use for laundry at the beginning of the study experienced approximately one-fourth the rate of infection of households that did notii.

Children And Flu: Special Considerations

According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately one-fifth of the U.S. population attends or works in schools. Additionally, large numbers of American families rely on day care facilities for full-time or after-school child care.

Compared to adults, children have fewer antibodies for fighting off illness, which allows viruses to multiply more quickly in children’s bodies. With more viruses in their bodies, youngsters can spread viruses more easily. Children under age two often suffer gastrointestinal problems when they are infected with the flu, and their stool contains the virus. Add to this the less-than-perfect hygiene practiced by many young children, and the risk of infection from contact with youngsters rises.

The CDC has issued advice for preventing the spread of flu in childcare settings. In addition to vaccinating all children between six and 23 months of age, recommendations include teaching proper hand washing and keeping childcare environments clean. Frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and other commonly shared items, should be disinfected daily with either an EPA-registered hospital disinfectant or EPA-registered chlorine bleach solution. According to the recommendations, if an EPA-registered chlorine bleach is not available, generic chlorine bleach may be used by mixing ¼ cup chlorine bleach with 1 gallon of cool water.

Getting Through Flu Season With the Help of An Old Friend

From farm animals to humans

Influenza virus ultimately originates in farm animals from which it is transferred to humans. For centuries, people noticed that flu outbreaks coincide with epidemics in pigs, ducks and horses. Human influenza probably dates back to 2000-5000 B.C.-the time of domestication of these animals. The virus owes its longevity to an ability to incorporate small changes, or mutations, as it shuttles between humans and domesticated animals.iii

Understanding how viruses use us to sustain their existence in the great web of life is an aid to developing the best flu risk management plan possible. Getting a flu shot, limiting contact with the infected, washing hands frequently and thoroughly, and mixing up an effective germ-busting solution of water and familiar household laundry bleach will go a long way to protecting us from nature’s seasonal flu scourge.

Flu Statistics

  • The time from when a person is exposed to flu virus to when symptoms appear is about one to four days, with an average of about two days.
  • The US normally vaccinates a larger proportion of its population than any other country except Canada.
  • Two-thirds of the US supply of flu vaccine usually goes to adults between 18 and 65. Yet 90 percent of deaths from flu occur in those over 65 years of age.
  • On average, approximately five to twenty percent of US residents get the flu, and more than 200,000 persons are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year.
  • The yearly death toll in the U.S. from flu varies from 17,000 to 51,000.

i Weigl, A., (2004, Oct. 14). Staying safe: Precautions can help cut the risk,

ii Wart, P.J. (2004, Oct. 12). The virus fighting duo: Hot water and bleach, HEALTH Plus Health and Wellness, Vanderbilt University.

iii Karlen, A. (1995). Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times. New York: Simon & Schuster.