Swine flu or the H1N1 virus is a fairly new strain of influenza that causes symptoms similar to those of regular flu. The condition was coined swine flu because, historically, people who caught it had direct contact with pigs. These days, however, it is primarily spread directly between humans. In 2009, swine flu became known worldwide when experts discovered it was spreading between humans. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, and it ultimately killed more than 17,000 people. Now that an effective vaccine is available, swine flu is one more basic flu virus that spreads like a normal, seasonal flu.
The symptoms of swine flu are similar to the regular seasonal flu and include coughing, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, fever, lethargy, and lack of appetite. Some people also report eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Symptoms generally develop one to three days after contact with the virus. As with the regular flu, swine flu can become dangerous when it leads to more serious health problems such as lung infections and pneumonia. People with existing conditions such as heart disease or diabetes can encounter more severe complications.
As with the seasonal flu, swine flu is extremely contagious. It is spread through saliva and mucus particles when an infected person sneezes or coughs, or when someone touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches their eyes, mouth, or nose. Although swine flu can spread from pigs to people, only those in close contact with pigs are at risk of contracting it in this way.
It is difficult to determine if a person has swine flu or regular flu without testing. A doctor can diagnose it by taking a swab from the nose or throat and analyzing it to determine which type of virus is present. However, this is an expensive method, so generally, only those at high risk of developing complications have this test done. If a person presents swine flu symptoms after multiple cases have been reported in the area, physicians generally assume the individual has contacted this type of virus.
Some people are at a higher risk of developing swine flu because their bodies are more susceptible to serious complications. This includes individuals who are under five years old but particularly under two, adults 65 years old and older, pregnant women, and residents of long-term care facilities. Additionally, certain medical conditions increase risk of contracting the virus:
Most cases of swine flu don't require medication and individuals can fight the infection on their own with plenty of rest and increased fluid consumption. Over-the-counter painkillers can ease symptoms such as a headache and fever. Influenza antiviral drugs are normally reserved for people at high risk or who have experienced complications. It is best to limit consumption of these as flu viruses can develop resistance to these drugs.
The seasonal flu vaccine widely administered every year also protects against the H1N1 strain of swine flu. Receiving an injection or a nasal spray of the vaccine encourages the body to develop antibodies, proteins that recognize and help fight off germs, including viruses. This protects people against those flu viruses in the future. Every year the World Health Organization analyzes the strains of flu they believe will be most common that season, and the vaccine is altered to fend off these strains.
The easiest way to prevent swine flu is to get a yearly flu vaccination. Individuals can also protect themselves by washing their hands frequently with soap, avoiding touching the eyes, nose, or mouth, staying at home when ill, and avoiding contact with sick people.
It isn't entirely clear how long a person with swine flu remains contagious, but it is believed to be similar to regular influenza in that the contagious stage begins a day before symptoms appear and lasts up to seven days while symptoms are present. The CDC recommends individuals stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has passed. However, one study in Singapore found 40% of subjects were still shedding the virus after seven days of illness, and 10% at ten days. That said, it was not possible to determine if the people shedding the virus were also contagious.
Like seasonal flu, most cases of swine flu tend to be mild. However, the CDC suggests infected people should be aware of some of the signs of more severe illness. In children, symptoms that may require emergency medical attention include
In adults, warning signs that could require emergency medical attention are:
Despite the name, the WHO states that it is safe to eat all pork products. The influenza virus is not transmissible to humans from eating pork or food products from pigs. By following general guidance for the preparation of pork and cooking it at temperatures of 160°F/70°C, any potential virus present in the raw meat will become inactive.
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