Adapted in part from H1N1 flu information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a new type of flu caused by an influenza (“flu”) virus that was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009.
In June 2009, when the new virus had spread to more than 70 countries, the World Health Organization raised the worldwide alert level for novel influenza A/H1N1 (a.k.a. swine flu) to Phase 6, signaling that a global pandemic was under way. Since then, the virus has spread to many more countries.
The symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of “regular” or “seasonal” flu – the kind that plagues us every year in the fall and winter months.
How the swine flu virus spreads
The swine flu virus is spreading from person-to-person worldwide in much the same way that seasonal flu viruses spread: from person to person through coughs and sneezes. Typically, droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled through the air and land on the mouth or nose of someone nearby.
It’s also spread by touching something (or someone) that has droplets on it and then touching your own mouth or nose (or someone else’s mouth or nose, such as your child's) before washing your hands.
That's why hand washing is so important!
Know the signs and symptoms of swine flu infection
Swine flu symptoms in children and adults are pretty much the same as those for seasonal flu:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Chills and fatigue
- Sometimes, diarrhea and vomiting
If you develop the flu, you probably won't have all those symptoms, but you're likely to have some combination of them. Also keep in mind that these can be symptoms of illnesses that are not the flu. So symptoms alone may not be enough to diagnose the flu, and only a laboratory test can determine whether it's swine flu (H1N1) or another flu virus. So if a flu does strike your family, the chances are you'll never know whether your child (or you) had swine flu.
The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that a child with a high fever but no nasal symptoms may have the flu – while having nasal symptoms with no fever probably indicates a cold. See our article on seasonal flu in children for a detailed description of flu symptoms and how to tell whether your child has the flu or another illness.
What to do if your child gets sick
Here’s what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends if your child develops some or all of the symptoms described above:
- If your child is 5 or older and otherwise healthy and develops what appear to be flu symptoms, consult your doctor as needed and make sure your child gets plenty of rest and drinks enough fluids.
- If your child is under 5, or is any age and has a medical condition like asthma, diabetes, or a neurologic problem and develops symptoms, call your doctor right away or get medical attention. Kids under 5 and kids who have chronic medical conditions may be at higher risk of serious complications from any type of flu, including swine flu.
If you have concerns, err on the side of calling your doctor. You know your child best, so trust your instincts.
Signs of a medical emergency
Certain symptoms in children are a sign that urgent medical help may be needed. Watch for these warning signs in kids and get help immediately if they happen:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish or gray skin color
- Signs of dehydration such as not drinking much, not urinating as much as usual, or (in infants) a lack of tears when crying
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Not waking up normally or interacting normally
- Being so irritable that they don’t want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms get better but then return with fever and worse cough
Parents and caregivers should also watch out for symptoms of flu in themselves. Adults are advised to seek urgent medical help for these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
How to protect your family from swine flu
- Get yourself and your children vaccinated as soon as a vaccine becomes available. It takes a while for immunity to develop after you get the vaccine.
- Wash your hands and your children’s hands frequently, including immediately before eating, after sneezing, and after going to the bathroom. Use proper hand-washing techniques, rubbing both sides of your soapy hands for at least 15 seconds and rinsing with plenty of water. When soap and water aren’t available, use alcohol-based gel sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol or disposable hand wipes.
- Don't cough or sneeze into your bare hands. That puts the virus is all over your hands, where it can easily spread to others. Instead, cover your mouth with your arm and cough or sneeze into your sleeve or cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue and throw it away after using. (Many experts say the sleeve method is better than using a tissue, because handling a tissue can contaminate your hands and spread illness.) If you inadvertently use your bare hands, wash them right away.
- Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. You may think your hands are clean, but if your hands have touched a door knob, a cup, a refrigerator handle or any other item that someone else has touched with a virus-covered hand, your hands carry the virus and can infect you.
- Viruses and bacteria can live two to eight hours on hard surfaces. Wipe down surfaces at home such as toys, bedside tables, doorknobs, telephones, and bathroom and kitchen counters with a disinfectant, following directions on the label.
- Keep your children at least 6 feet away from people who are sick, including anyone in your household who is sick. Know the symptoms of swine flu and seek medical care if illness is severe. If you catch it early, antiviral medicines may help.
Who's most likely to get a severe case of the new swine flu?
The people most at risk from H1N1 (swine) flu are probably the same as those most at risks from seasonal flu:
- Children under 5
- People 65 and older
- People under 18 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy and might be at risk for Reye's syndrome after flu virus infection
- Pregnant women
- Adults and children who have asthma or chronic pulmonary, cardiovascular, hepatic, hematological, neurologic, neuromuscular, or metabolic disorders such as diabetes
- Adults and children whose immune systems are suppressed (including immunosuppression caused by medications or HIV)
- Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities.
Why is swine flu also called H1N1 flu?
“Swine flu” remains the popular term outside of scientific circles, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control now calls the virus “novel H1N1” to distinguish it from other viruses that affect people and pigs. It was called swine flu at first because many of the genes in the new virus appeared similar to swine flu viruses found in pigs in North America.
Further study showed that the new virus is quite different from North American pig viruses. Instead, it has two genes from flu viruses found in pigs in Europe and Asia, along with genes from birds and from humans.
Is swine flu worse than seasonal flu?
From the flurry of publicity about swine flu, you might think it’s a more severe disease than seasonal flu. The reality? Here’s what we know right now:
Millions of people in the United States — about 5 to 20 percent —come down with seasonal flu every year. An average of 36,000 die and more than 200,000 have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza-related causes. As for the effects of H1N1 (swine) flu on our population, it’s simply too early to tell how it will compare.
So far, most people who come down with swine flu cope with it just fine and recover without special medical care. But, like regular (“seasonal”) flu, it can become serious. At its worst, the new swine flu can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, and even death.
Babies younger than 6 months can’t be vaccinated, but their caregivers can help the tiniest babies stay healthy by getting vaccinated themselves.
Where to get more information about swine flu
Information about swine flu (H1N1 flu) changes frequently.