by John Spinosa, MD, PhD
H1N1 flu has been making its way back into the headlines over the summer, and with the official start of flu season just a month or so away, it’s a good time to learn more about this illness and, especially, what you can do to reduce your risk of catching it.
H1N1 influenza — commonly called swine flu — is a new strain of flu that has not been seen before in the United States. It was originally labeled swine flu because it was similar to influenza viruses that often affect pigs, but research has found that it is in fact very different.
H1N1 has been spreading worldwide and was first discovered in the U.S. in March of 2009. Two months later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared H1N1 to be a global pandemic, meaning it covers a wide geographic area and affects a large percentage of the population; according to the WHO, there were nearly 30,000 confirmed cases reported in 74 countries.
In San Diego County, about 1,100 cases have been confirmed so far, and health officials expect more cases to be discovered in the coming months as our traditional flu season gets under way.
As with other types of flu, H1N1 ranges from mild to severe, and has been fatal in some cases. However, because this strain is so new, people have not yet built up immunity to it and no vaccine has been available (the seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against H1N1).
As a result, H1N1 poses a greater threat than other types of flu. In the U.S., most people have experienced only typical flu-like symptoms and recovered with no ill effects. In Mexico, however, H1N1 has been more serious and resulted in more deaths.
H1N1 causes the usual flu symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. In some cases, diarrhea and vomiting may occur as well. Generally, the virus runs it course without complications. In some cases, antiviral drugs may help speed recovery.
Like other flu viruses, H1N1 is spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with items that an infected person has touched. As long as you have symptoms, you’re considered contagious and should minimize contact with other people until your symptoms are completely gone. Children may be contagious longer than adults.
You can take steps to help protect yourself from H1N1 (as well as other flu viruses):
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, or using hand sanitizers to de-germ your hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Don’t share drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels or other objects with sick people.
Most cases of H1N1 will resolve on their own without treatment. However, if you experience any of the following warning signs, go to the emergency room right away:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness or confusion
- Severe or persistent vomiting
In children, emergency warning signs include:
- Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
- Fever with a rash
If you do get sick, follow these guidelines to lessen the likelihood of spreading the virus to others:
- Stay home from work or school for three days or for 24 hours after your fever is gone.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough, and dispose of the tissue in the trash.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer, especially after you sneeze or cough.
- Avoid shaking hands with or touching other people.
Generally, H1N1 is not serious, but always call your doctor if you have concerns.
Fortunately, an H1N1 vaccine is currently in production and is expected to be available to the public in late October. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that the following groups get the vaccine:
- Pregnant women, who have a higher risk of complications and may provide protection against the virus to infants who cannot be vaccinated
- Household contacts and caregivers for children younger than six months of age, because these young infants have a higher risk of complications and cannot be vaccinated
- Health care and emergency medical services personnel, who may become infected and pass the virus on to those they care for
- Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions that may increase their risk of H1N1-related complications
All people from six months through 24 years of age
- There have been many cases of H1N1 infection reported in children and teens, who are in close contact with one another in school and day care from six months through 18 years of age
- Many cases also have been reported in young adults 19 through 24 years of age, who often live, work and study together
The H1N1 vaccine is meant to be used in addition to, rather than instead of, the seasonal flu vaccine, so both vaccines may be recommended. Talk to your physician about which vaccines are best for you.
This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by John Spinosa, MD, PhD, Chief of Staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.