H1N1 influenza (swine flu)

1) Dear Alice,

I know some people that have swine flu and I've been in contact with someone who lives with them. Will I now get it?

2) Hello Alice,

I want to know which is the incubation period for the swine flu?? Thanks!

3) Dear Alice,

I got a flu shot last November and, so far, so good. I haven't been sick at all, even though I have shared close quarters with people who have been sick. I'm wondering whether that flu shot I received offers any protection against this current swine flu going around. And would it be helpful for others to immunize themselves right now? Please let me know.

— Hopefully Protected

Dear Readers 1, 2, and Hopefully Protected,

Swine flu is the common name for one of the types of influenza A (H1N1) and is so named because it's a strain of flu virus commonly found in pigs. Despite its name, it's possible for humans to transmit the infection to other humans. When it emerged in 2009, it caused widespread illness globally, leading the World Health Organization to declare an H1N1 flu pandemic. After the pandemic ended in August 2010, this strain of the flu has become one of the strains that causes seasonal flu, and due to this, it's included in seasonal flu vaccine. This virus seems to have a relatively short incubation period and most people who contract it will become ill one to three days after being exposed. 

Symptoms of the H1N1 flu are similar to other influenza infections and include:

  • Possible fever
  • Feeling tired, lethargy
  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Chills
  • Coughing
  • Possible nausea and vomiting
  • Possible diarrhea

List adapted from Mayo Clinic

If you're experiencing flu-like symptoms and have reason to believe you've been exposed to the virus, it's key to get rest and avoid going to work or other public places while you're ill. Additionally, you can contact your health care provider, who may be able to provide treatment that eases symptoms. In most instances, a health care provider can diagnose the flu through symptoms and treatments won't change based on the strain of the flu. However, there may be some instances, such as being at high risk of complications or differentiating between COVID-19 and the flu, that may cause a health care provider to feel it necessary. If you have severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, it's critical to get medical care right away. 

Because flu symptoms resulting from H1N1 have been relatively mild, treatment is the same as standard treatment for any flu virus. This means getting lots of rest and fluids, taking a fever-reducer, staying away from public places, and monitoring symptoms. Antiviral flu treatments may be prescribed for people who test positive for any strain of influenza virus (including H1N1) and are best if started within 48 hours of the first symptoms. For most people, because there's no difference in treatment, it isn't necessary to determine which flu strain is causing illness. Because the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help with any type of flu.

All of this being said, there are a number of ways to prevention transmission of the flu. Some these include: 

  • Washing hands frequently or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, or coughing into your upper sleeve (avoid coughing directly onto your hands)
  • Avoiding contact with people who are ill
  • Cleaning frequently touched objects, such as phones
  • Getting a seasonal flu vaccine each year

For the curious, pork products don't pose any risk of transmitting swine flu and are safe to eat when properly handled and prepared. Typical flu pathways, such as coughing and not washing hands, are the routes of transmission for this illness, so personal hygiene and limiting contact with people who are sick is the best way to prevent infection. If you're feeling flu-ish, rest, pay attention to your symptoms, and consider visiting or calling your health care provider.

Take care,

Last updated Feb 18, 2022
Originally published May 01, 2009

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