MASON CITY — The spread of influenza continues to increase throughout north-central Iowa, and local public health officials say there’s some easy ways to help prevent passing the flu around to others.Cerro Gordo County Public Health infectious disease nurse Jeni Stiles says if you do get the flu, stay home. “The most important thing is we just want to make sure that we’re staying home and containing those germs when we are sick. We know that we can spread the germs with influenza for 24 hours before we even know that we’re sick ourselves, and even after we are feeling better. So five to seven days after the onset of illness, which means if you were sick and felt better in three days, we still have a few days that we can spread that illness.”Stiles says good hand washing can help decrease the spread of the flu. “Proper hand washing is going to be the use of soap and water, and we want to wash your hands for 20 seconds at least. We think about the “Happy Birthday” song, I know they teach the kids ‘sing the Happy Birthday song twice’ and then you’ve properly wash your hands. You want to make sure that you’re using up soap and water. When you go out to the store and go touch the cart and the door knobs and all that, when we get back home, make sure that you’re washing your hands with soap and water. Try to keep your hands away from your face, encourage children to keep your hands away from their face, so that we don’t put those germs into our mouths or our nose or our eyes.”Stiles says while hand sanitizers are great, they aren’t a replacement for washing your hands. “Hand sanitizer sometimes that may be the only thing that we have available. After we get in the car after being in the store or something like that, hand sanitizer is a good thing to use. It doesn’t kill everything, so when we think about the stomach flu that’s caused by norovirus, hand sanitizer isn’t effective in killing that. We want to make sure that after we’ve use hand sanitizer, when we get to somewhere where soap and water is available, that we do wash our hands.”Stiles says when you cough, make sure you are covering your mouth with something other than your hand. “The most effective way of decreasing the spread of germs when we’re coughing or sneezing is to sneeze or cough into our elbow. That way, when you cough and sneeze into your hands, we’re getting those germs on our hands, and then we’re putting those on door knobs, we’re putting those germs on shopping carts and spreading the germs throughout the community. A tissue too is obviously, you know it doesn’t catch everything, and then we get it on our hands again, where this way, coughing into our elbow, we’re able to contain it more.”Stiles says flu shots are still effective and you can get them at the health department or through your physician.