Oink, oink. It’s baaaaack!
The H1N1 flu virus — commonly known as the “Swine Flu” — put a scare into U.S. public health and medical professionals starting in the spring of 2009. Public health specialists, fearing the potential for one of the worst flu outbreaks in memory, had raced against the clock that year to develop a vaccine for that form of the flu so that it could be ready for the fall. The general flu vaccines that had been prepared did not include H1N1 because it was not predicted to be a widespread threat until after those vaccines were produced.
And while there was a pandemic, it was not as widespread or as virulent as many had feared.
Fast forward 4 years. After a brief “hiatus,” H1N1 has returned. And this time it has gone “mainstream,” generating relatively little media attention compared with 2009. Yet, it has been the dominant strain during this flu season. When people talk about the flu this season, they are almost certainly talking about H1N1. The reduced media visibility may be due, in part, to the fact that this year’s general flu vaccines offer some protection against the Swine Flu. Thus, there is no panic within the public health community.
The symptoms are largely the same as the other, garden-variety versions of the flu of years past. It usually involves a sore throat, cough, fever, chills and fatigue that can be extreme. Vomiting and nausea are sometimes associated with it.
But what distinguishes the Swine Flu from other flu bugs is the target audience. While the very young and the elderly are generally more vulnerable to the flu, the Swine Flu seems to target teens and young adults more heavily than older people. Experts believe this may be because many individuals born before 1950 were exposed to Swine Flu-like viruses early in their lives, and therefore have developed some immunity to the H1N1 strain.
So, how can you avoid catching the Swine Flu? Although there are no guarantees, there are some steps you can take to reduce your chances, according to Dr. Diane Morgenthaler, director of Southern’s health and wellness center.
She strongly recommends consulting with your doctor about getting a flu vaccine. While there are some people who should not get it for health reasons, most individuals probably should, Morgenthaler says. College students often have the option of checking with their campus health services.
“It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect,” she says. “But we haven’t reached the peak of flu season yet, so there is still time.”
Morgenthaler’s suggestions also include:
- Consistently use good hand washing techniques and make frequent use of hand sanitizers, especially after touching common areas, such as door knobs, light switches and remote controls.
- Consider a fist bump, instead of a handshake. If you do shake hands – and especially if the other person shows signs of being sick – wash your hands thoroughly. Or, at least, use a hand sanitizer.
- Eat well and get plenty of sleep. You want to keep your immune system sharp in case you are exposed to the virus.
- Avoid crowded places when possible.
And what if you suspect you might already have caught the flu?
“Antiviral medication may be helpful, especially in the first 48 hours,” Morgenthaler says.
“Most people are better within 1 to 2 weeks using over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough drops, antihistamines, salt water gargles and by drinking lots of fluids. But don’t spread the virus around. If you are sick, stay home if at all possible. Most bosses, professors and teachers will understand.”