H1N1 flu is also known as swine flu. It’s called swine flu because in the past, the people who caught it had direct contact with pigs. That changed several years ago, when a new virus emerged that spread among people who hadn’t been near pigs.
In 2009, H1N1 was spreading fast around the world, so the World Health Organization called it a pandemic. Since then, people have continued to get sick from swine flu, but not as many.
While swine flu isn’t as scary as it seemed a few years ago, it’s still important to protect yourself from getting it. Like seasonal flu, it can cause more serious health problems for some people. The best protection is to get a flu vaccine, or flu shot, every year. Swine flu is one of the viruses included in the vaccine.
Causes of Swine Flu
Swine flu is contagious, and it spreads in the same way as the seasonal flu. When people who have it cough or sneeze, they spray tiny drops of the virus into the air. If you come in contact with these drops or touch a surface (such as a doorknob or sink) that an infected person has recently touched, you can catch H1N1 swine flu.
Despite the name, you can’t catch swine flu from eating bacon, ham, or any other pork product.
Swine Flu Symptoms
People who have swine flu can be contagious one day before they have any symptoms, and as many as 7 days after they get sick. Kids can be contagious for as long as 10 days.
Most symptoms are the same as seasonal flu. They can include:
- sore throat
- stuffy or runny nose
- body aches
Like seasonal flu, swine flu can lead to more serious complications, including pneumonia and respiratory failure. And it can make conditions like diabetes or asthma worse. If you have symptoms like shortness of breath, severe vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, or confusion, call your doctor right away.
Tests for Swine Flu
It’s hard to tell whether you have swine flu or seasonal flu, because most symptoms are the same. People with swine flu may be more likely to feel nauseous and throw up than people who have seasonal flu. But a lab test is the only way to know for sure. Even a rapid flu test you can get in your doctor’s office won’t tell you for sure.
To test for swine flu, your doctor takes a sample from your nose or throat. You may not need to be tested. The CDC says the people who need to be tested are those in the hospital or those at high risk for getting life-threatening problems from the flu, such as:
- Children under 5 years old
- People 65 or older
- Children and teens (under age 18) who are getting long-term aspirintherapy, and who might be at risk for Reye’s syndrome after being infected with swine flu. Reye’s syndrome is a life-threatening illness linked to aspirin use in children.
- Pregnant women
- Adults and children who have chronic lung, heart, liver, blood, nervous system, neuromuscular, or metabolic problems
- Adults and children who have suppressed immune systems (including those who take medications to suppress their immune systems or who have HIV)
- People in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
How Is Swine Flu Treated?
Some of the same antiviral drugs that are used to treat seasonal flu also work against H1N1 swine flu. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir(Relenza) seem to work best, although some kinds of swine flu are resistant to Tamiflu.
These drugs can help you get over swine flu faster. They can also help keep it from being too severe. They work best when taken within 48 hours of the first flu symptoms, but they can help when taken later.
Antibiotics won’t help, because flu is caused by a virus, not bacteria.
Over-the-counter pain remedies and cold and flu medications can help relieve aches, pains, and fever. Don’t give aspirin to children under age 18 because of the risk for Reye’s syndrome. Check to make sure that over-the-counter cold medications do not have aspirin before giving them to children.
Vaccine for Swine Flu
The same flu vaccine that protects against seasonal flu also protects against the H1N1 swine flu strain. You can get it as a shot or as a nasal spray. Either way, it “teaches” your immune system to attack the real virus.
Besides a flu shot, there are other things you can do to stay healthy:
- Wash your hands throughout the day with soap and water. Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to make sure you’ve washed long enough. Or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Avoid people who are sick.
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