Lately, it seems like swine flu is all anyone is talking about.
Cases in countries including Mexico, the United States, Canada,
Spain, and New Zealand have sparked international headlines - and
panic - about the possibility of a pandemic, the worldwide spread
of this potentially serious infectious disease.
But the reality is that health officials are still assessing the
threat and there's no evidence in the United States so far that
swine flu is any worse than the common seasonal flu.
So there's no reason to panic. But it is smart to take
precautions, like washing your hands often. To put things in
perspective, here are some important facts about swine flu.
About Swine Flu
Swine flu is a contagious respiratory virus that affects pigs
year-round. The virus making headlines right now is a new strain of
the swine flu, which is an influenza type A (H1N1) virus. This
strain contains a combination of different flu viruses that
affect pigs, birds, and humans. Because of the human component of
the virus, it can spread from person-to-person more easily.
Since this is a new strain of flu virus, people who had a flu
shot this past winter probably won't be protected against swine
flu. However, the virus does appear to respond to treatment with
some of the same medicines used to treat common seasonal flu.
How It's Spread
Swine flu spreads in the same way that other flu viruses do -
through the air when a person who has the virus sneezes, coughs, or
speaks. People can also catch the virus after touching an object
that someone with the virus sneezed or coughed on. As with other
flu viruses, people who have the virus can be contagious a day or
so before their symptoms start, so they can pass it on before they
even know they're sick.
You can't get swine flu from eating pork or pork products.
Eating properly cooked pork is safe.
Who Is Especially at Risk?
As with other types of flu, kids with chronic medical conditions
(like diabetes, heart disease, or asthma or other lung problems)
can have more problems coping with the illness. They might get
sicker and need more medical support; in some cases,
hospitalization may be necessary.
Pregnant women who catch the flu also are more likely to get
sicker. Having the flu can increase the risk for complications
during pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
In infants, the flu can be life-threatening and requires
immediate medical attention.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of swine flu are similar to the common flu: fever,
cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue, and
sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. Swine flu also can cause
pneumonia, which can make it hard to breathe.
Kids with any of these symptoms need immediate medical
- fast breathing or trouble breathing
- bluish skin color
- not drinking enough fluids
- very sleepy or lethargic
- in babies, being so irritable they don't want to be
- fever with a rash
- flu-like symptoms improve, then return with fever and a worse
If you think your child has the flu, call your doctor -
particularly if you live in any of the states that have
reported swine flu outbreaks. To help track a possible
epidemic, doctors and scientists can find out if someone has swine
flu by taking a swab sample from the person's nose and throat
and sending it to a lab to be analyzed. Doctors won't know the
results of this test for a few days.
Currently, no medicine is specifically developed to prevent
or treat this new strain of swine flu, but it does appear that some
of the antiviral medicines used to treat common seasonal flu may
ease symptoms and shorten the duration of illness.
Kids without chronic health conditions usually tolerate
infection with flu viruses fairly well. But if your child does have
a chronic condition, like asthma, make sure to check with your
doctor to help ensure the condition is under control.
Likewise, if you're pregnant and come down with flu symptoms
or have been exposed to someone who has the flu, see a doctor right
away. You may need to take antiviral medications as a precaution
for yourself and your baby.
These at-home tips can help most otherwise healthy kids cope
with the flu:
- drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
- get plenty of sleep and take it easy
- take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve fever and aches
(but do not give aspirin unless your doctor instructs you to do
- wear layers, since the flu often makes them cold one minute
and hot the next (wearing layers - like a T-shirt, sweatshirt,
and robe - makes it easy to add or subtract clothes as
Remember to call a doctor if your child seems to get better but
then feels worse, develops a high fever, has any trouble breathing,
or seems confused.
Protecting Your Family
There is no vaccine against this strain of flu, although
scientists should be able to develop one once they have analyzed
the new virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends
that families take these precautions against swine flu:
- If you recently traveled to Mexico and now have flu symptoms,
tell your doctor.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or
cough and put used tissues in the trash.
- If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your
upper sleeve, not your hands.
- Clean your hands after coughing or sneezing - wash with soap
and water or use alcohol-based hand cleaner.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Keep sick kids home from daycare or school and limit
their contact with others; kids should stay home 10 days after
the onset of illness.
Breastfeeding mothers who have the flu can continue
breastfeeding, even if they're on antiviral medicines. But they
may have to take additional precautions (like wearing a face mask)
to reduce the risk to their baby. Talk to your doctor about how you
can help keep your baby healthy.
Because the flu virus isn't transmitted through food, the
CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) say it's
safe to eat pork. Of course, pork should be well cooked to avoid
any illness. Cooking pork to a temperature of 160Âº F or higher will
kill all viruses (use a meat thermometer to check the internal
temperature when cooking meats). Don't eat pork that looks
pinkish or bloody inside.
There's no evidence that touching raw pork will transmit the
virus - although it's always a good idea to wash your hands and
all surfaces after touching any raw meat.
Are U.S. Pigs Affected?
Although people can catch swine flu from pigs, there's no
evidence right now that any pigs in the United States are infected
with this new strain of swine flu. Signs of flu in pigs are similar
to those in humans.
If you raise pigs or have a pet pig, call your vet if the pig
seems to lack energy or has a fever, is sneezing or coughing, is
having trouble breathing, or has a discharge coming from its eyes
Talking to Kids
Listening to news reports about swine flu can upset kids because
they may focus on worst-case scenarios. You can help ease their
fears by being available to answer their questions.
You can tell kids that there's no need to panic about swine
flu. The media and governments are on high alert to help limit the
spread of the disease and help people who may become ill. The last
flu pandemic that was serious enough to affect millions of people
happened a century ago - before people had access to the medical
knowledge, care, and medications that we have today.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2009
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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