Swine Flu

Written by Lydia Krause | Published on September 17, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on September 17, 2012

What Is Swine Flu?

Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, made headlines in 2009 when it was declared a pandemic. Pandemics are contagious diseases affecting people throughout the world or on multiple continents at the same time. H1N1 has already been seen in 74 countries across the globe.

H1N1 is highly contagious, allowing it to spread quickly from person to person. A simple sneeze may cause thousands of germs to spread through the air. The virus can linger on tables and surface areas like door knobs, waiting to be picked up.

Swine flu causes many symptoms that are similar to regular influenza. A diagnosis can be made by testing a swab of mucus from the nose or throat. The oral drug Tamiflu is recommendedfor those who have swine flu.

Injection and nasal spray vaccinations are available to prevent swine flu. The best means of dealing with swine flu is to prevent it. Hand sanitization is important to stop the spread of the virus, and staying away from infected people will help stop person-to-person transmission.

Risk Factors for Swine Flu

Swine flu is unusual because it doesn't target the same age group as the rhinovirus (typical flu). The disease focuses on young adults. This is unusual because most flu viruses attack those who are elderly or very young. Some form of immunity to swine flu may exist in the elderly due to previous flu exposures.

Other risk factors for swine flu include:

  • compromised immune system (from a disease such as AIDS)
  • pregnancy
  • past history of infections

Cause of Swine Flu

The swine flu is caused by a strain of influenza virus that usually only infects pigs. Unlike typhus, which can be transmitted by lice or ticks, the main transmission isn't from pigs to people, but rather from person to person.

Swine flu is very contagious. The disease is spread through saliva and mucus particles. People may spread them by:

  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • touching a germ-covered surface and then touching their eyes or nose

Symptoms of Swine Flu

The symptoms of swine flu are very much like those of regular influenza. They include:

  • chills
  • fever
  • coughing
  • sore throat

Diagnosing Swine Flu

A diagnosis is made by sampling fluid from those with swine flu. To take a sample, a doctor or nurse may swab your nose or throat.

The swab will be analyzed using various genetic and laboratory techniques to identify the specific type of virus.

Treating Swine Flu

The CDC recommends that healthcare workers in contact with swine flu or suspected swine flu patients take precautions such as:

  • wearing gloves and/or gowns
  • using eye protection
  • wearing face masks

People with known cases of swine flu should be isolated to prevent the spread of H1N1.

During the swine flu pandemic, scientists were able to produce a vaccine. The vaccine may be given through an injection or nasal spray. The vaccine is a preventive measure.

Side effects of the vaccine are minor and may include:

  • fever
  • aches
  • mild soreness at the injection site

The oral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is the current recommended medication for swine flu. It's an antiviral drug used to treat influenza infections. This drug, or sometimes zanamivir (Relenza), is used as treatment for people who have been exposed to swine flu in the last 48 hours, or if they're suspected of having swine flu. These drugs aren't used as a preventive measure for swine flu. 

Outlook for Swine Flu

Severe cases of swine flu can be fatal. Most fatal cases occur in those with underlying conditions, such as HIV/AIDS. The majority of people with swine flu recover and can anticipate a normal life expectancy.

Preventing Swine Flu

Easy ways to prevent swine flu (in addition to being vaccinated) include:

  • frequently washing hands with soap or hand sanitizer
  • not touching your nose, mouth, or eyes (the virus can survive on telephones, tabletops, etc.)
  • staying home from work or school if you're ill 
  • avoiding large gatherings when swine flu is in season. Flu season shifts from year to year, but in the United States it generally starts in October and runs until as late as May. It usually peaks in January, although it is possible to get the flu any time of year.

Read This Next

Protect Yourself from Swine Flu This Season
Protect Yourself from Swine Flu This Season
Does Wearing a Mask Prevent the Flu?
Does Wearing a Mask Prevent the Flu?
What Is R0?: Gauging Contagious Infections
What Is R0?: Gauging Contagious Infections
A-B-C, 1-2-3: Type of Flu and Me
A-B-C, 1-2-3: Type of Flu and Me
10 Worst Outbreaks in U.S. History
10 Worst Outbreaks in U.S. History