If you are reaching for your handkerchief it might be too late to stop the spread of flu, research suggests.
Flu and cold viruses are known to be carried in mucus droplets that spray out when a person coughs or sneezes.
But the latest research indicates that flu can be transmitted before any symptoms show.
The findings, from a study of ferrets, support earlier research suggesting that viral particles can be expelled into the air through normal breathing.
Lead researcher Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, says: ‘This result has important implications for pandemic planning strategies. It means that the spread of flu is very difficult to control, even with self-diagnosis and measures such as temperature screens at airports.
‘It also means that doctors and nurses who don’t get the flu jab are putting their patients at risk because they might pass on an infection when they don’t know they’re infected.’
Ferrets are often used in flu research because they are susceptible to the same virus strains as humans, and show similar symptoms.
The new study, reported in the online journal PLoS ONE, is the first to investigate non-symptomatic flu transmission in an animal.
Ferrets with flu were placed close to healthy animals for a short period of time at different stages after infection. Transmission occurred before the flu carriers displayed their first symptom: fever. The virus passed between animals which were kept both in the same cage and in adjacent cages.
The strain used in the research was the same one that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic which killed almost 300,000 people worldwide.