Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, is a relatively new strain of an influenza virus that causes symptoms similar to the regular flu. It originated in pigs, but is spread primarily from person to person.
Swine flu made headlines in 2009 when it was first discovered in humans and became a pandemic. Pandemics are contagious diseases affecting people throughout the world or on multiple continents at the same time.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the H1N1 pandemic over in August of 2010. Since then, the H1N1 virus has been known as a regular human flu virus. It continues to spread during flu season like other strains of the flu. The flu shot developed each year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) usually includes a vaccination against a type of H1N1 virus.
Like other strains of the flu, H1N1 is highly contagious, allowing it to spread quickly from person to person. A simple sneeze can 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.
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.
When it first emerged, swine flu was most common in young adults. This was unusual because most flu viruses attack older adults or the very young. Today, risk factors for getting swine flu are the same as for any other strain of the flu. You’re most at risk if you spend time in an area with a large number of people who are infected with swine flu.
Some people are at higher risk for becoming seriously ill if they’re infected with swine flu. These groups include:
- adults over age 65
- children under 5 years old
- young adults under age 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
- people with compromised immune systems (due to a disease such as AIDS)
- pregnant women
- people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes or neuromuscular disease
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, transmission usually occurs from person to person, not animal to person.
You can’t catch swine flu from eating pork products.
Swine flu is very contagious. The disease is spread through saliva and mucus particles. People may spread it by:
- touching a germ-covered surface and then touching their eyes or nose
The symptoms of swine flu are very much like those of regular influenza. They include:
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose
- body aches
- nausea and vomiting
Your doctor can make a diagnosis by sampling fluid from your body. To take a sample, your doctor or a 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.
Most cases of swine flu don’t require medication for treatment. You don’t need to see a doctor unless you’re at risk for developing medical complications from the flu. You should focus on relieving your symptoms and preventing the spread of the H1N1 to other people.
Two antiviral drugs are recommended for treating swine flu: the oral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). Because flu viruses can develop resistance to these drugs, they’re often reserved for people who are at high risk for complications from the flu. People who are otherwise generally healthy and get swine flu will be able to fight the infection on their own.
Methods for managing the symptoms of swine flu are similar to the regular flu:
- Get plenty of rest. This will help your immune system focus on fighting the infection.
- Drink plenty of water and other liquids to prevent dehydration. Soup and clear juices will help replenish your body of lost nutrients.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers for symptoms such as headache and sore throat.
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.
The best way to prevent swine flu is to get a yearly flu vaccination. Other easy ways to prevent swine flu include:
- frequently washing hands with soap or hand sanitizer
- not touching your nose, mouth, or eyes (the virus can survive on surfaces like telephones and tabletops)
- staying home from work or school if you're ill
- avoiding large gatherings when swine flu is in season
It’s important to follow any public health recommendations regarding school closures or avoiding crowds during the flu season. These recommendations may come from the CDC, WHO, National Institutes of Health, or other governmental public health institutions.
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’s possible to get the flu any time of year.