Swine flu: What you need to know

Every parent has heard about the swine flu or what is now being called the H1N1 virus. The World Health Organization is calling it a pandemic, which means a worldwide epidemic. The name has nothing to do with the severity of the flu, but it does mean that it has spread worldwide. Some governments have become so worried that when I was on a recent vacation overseas, our temperature was taken at customs to be sure we weren’t entering the country with a fever, a common symptom of the flu.

With school in session, it is expected the number of flu cases will grow rapidly during the winter months.

Here’s a brief Q& A to help give you the basics on this infection so you can keep your children healthy.

What is swine flu?

Swine flu is a new strain of influenza that originated in pigs and spread to humans. Even though it started in pigs, it cannot be passed from pigs to humans, it cannot be passed through eating pork, and it has not been found in any hogs in the U.S.

 Is swine flu the same as the "regular" flu?

Swine flu is not the same as the seasonal flu and so being vaccinated against one or catching one will not make you immune to the other. If you catch the swine flu you will be immune, but only to the swine flu.

How dangerous is swine flu?

So far, most cases have been mild and children tend to recover fully after feeling cruddy for about a week. There have been some frightening predictions, but the truth is that no one knows how far or how fast this disease will spread. Most likely it will move through the U.S. this fall and winter and many people will become infected. People with asthma, diabetes, heart disease or a weakened immune system are at highest risk for severe complications or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70 percent of people admitted to the hospital with swine flu have an underlying health condition.

How does it spread?

The virus spreads quickly through sneezes, coughs and hand-to-hand contact. It can also live on surfaces for a period of time so money, door knobs, shopping bags, computer terminals and anything other people touch may all be sources for infection. To help avoid infection, tell your children to keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth, and to wash their hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. They should step a few feet back from anyone who is coughing or sneezing. The virus can travel through the air, but only a few feet.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are the same as the seasonal flu: fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea or vomiting. These typically develop three to five days after exposure and can last up to eight days. You are contagious for 24 hours before you get sick and that’s why it spreads so easily.

 How do you test for the flu?

The test is done by taking a sample from the inside of the nose using a cotton swab. It feels funny, but it is not painful.

Is there a vaccine?

A swine flu vaccine is being developed, but is unlikely to be available until early winter. Even then, high-risk populations (the very young, the very old, those with chronic illnesses or who work around sick people) will be given priority. Remember that the vaccine against the seasonal flu will NOT protect your child against the swine flu and vice versa. That means your child would need two separate vaccines to be protected against both types of flu.

It’s seems like they’re rushing a vaccine through so quickly. Will it be safe?

That’s a very appropriate concern for parents. As of press time, the vaccine has not been released, but it is in clinical trials meaning that thousands of doses have been given to volunteers (including children) and so far there have not been any serious side effects. Because of the nature of the seasonal flu, every year a new flu vaccine is developed, so there is extensive experience in testing flu vaccines. Many precautions are taken to assure public safety and any vaccine that is released will have passed muster. The CDC recommends that all children over 6 months old be vaccinated because children and young adults under 24 years old are at the highest risk for catching the flu. However, serious complications are more common among adults and those with chronic illnesses. Parents should strongly consider vaccinating their children, but if you are uncomfortable, you should schedule a time to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.

 What should I do if my child becomes infected?

Antibiotics do not kill viruses so they are not useful against the flu. Your child will need plenty of fluids and rest. Medications like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and ibuprofen (such as Motrin) can help to keep the fever down and make your child more comfortable. Remember, never use aspirin in children because of the risk of Reye Syndrome. If your child has asthma, diabetes or some other chronic illness, notify your doctor immediately because medicines against the flu work best if given within the first 48 hours after symptoms start. If your child is otherwise healthy, your doctor may recommend that you keep him or her home and let the disease run its course. If possible, avoid using the emergency room because you may spread the virus to others who are ill. Keep your infected child home from school and avoid crowds for a full seven days or for 24 hours after symptoms stop, whichever is longer, to avoid spreading the infection.

If my child gets the swine flu, when should I worry?

If your child appears to be having trouble breathing, is breathing very fast, cannot or will not drink enough fluids to stay hydrated or is significantly irritable, it’s definitely time to call your doctor or go to your nearest emergency department.

To stay up to date on the latest information about the swine flu, go towww.cdc.gov orwww.who.org

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at drlisathornton@gmail.com .

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