An Overview of Swine Flu (H1N1 Flu)

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Swine flu is the name for the influenza type A virus that affects pigs (swine). Although swine flu doesn't typically affect humans, there was a global outbreak (pandemic) in 2009–2010, the first flu pandemic in more than 40 years. It was caused by a then-new flu virus known as H1N1, a type A influenza virus that's a combination of swine, avian (bird), and human genes that mixed together in pigs and spread to humans. H1N1 is now considered a normal type of seasonal flu and is included in the flu vaccine.

History

H1N1 was first detected in April 2009 in a 10-year-old girl in California. It was declared a global pandemic in June 2009 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and was finally over in August 2010.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that swine flu infected nearly 61 million people in the United States and caused 12,469 deaths. Worldwide, up to 575,400 people died from pandemic swine flu.

Symptoms

H1N1 causes a respiratory illness and is very contagious. Symptoms of H1N1 are similar to those of the seasonal flu and may include:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Loss of appetite
  • A cough
  • A sore throat
  • A headache
  • Fatigue
  • A runny nose
  • Irritated eyes
  • Vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea

Causes

Type A influenza viruses have the ability to mix with other strains, creating a new strain, which is what happened to cause the pandemic of 2009 to 2010. Pigs are able to contract all three types of influenza (human, swine, and avian), creating a place for the virus to mix and change. The H1N1 virus is a type A virus with swine, human, and avian genes that metamorphosed in pigs, probably several years before the pandemic, and was named "swine flu" because it was thought to be similar to the viruses known to infect pigs.

Influenza circulates among pigs throughout the year but is most common during the late fall and winter, similar to the human flu season. Sometimes pigs can pass the flu to the humans who work with them, through contact with a surface that has been sneezed or coughed on or from inhaling air that's contaminated with the virus. This is what happened during the 2009–2010 pandemic, only, in this case, the new H1N1 strain spread quickly because humans had no immunity to it.

The pandemic was declared officially over in 2010 and now H1N1 is considered a normal seasonal flu. When people get the H1N1 virus, it's in the same way you can get any type of flu; by contact with another person who is sick, from either droplets in the air that contain the live virus or by touching a surface that has been contaminated and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

You can't get influenza from eating pork, though you should always make sure that it's cooked thoroughly and handled carefully.

Diagnosis

If you develop signs of the flu, you don't need to see a doctor if you're usually healthy. However, if you're pregnant, your immune system is compromised, or you have a chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes, emphysema, or a heart condition, you should see your doctor right away.

Your doctor will be able to diagnose you with the flu by taking a swab from your nose and/or throat within the first four to five days of your sickness. There are rapid influenza diagnostic tests that can tell if you have the flu or not, as well as which type (A or B), though they are not as accurate as other tests.

There are also rapid molecular assays, which are more accurate and can also give a rapid result. Since there is more than one strain of influenza A virus strain, a positive influenza A test doesn't necessarily mean you have the H1N1 virus. To definitively diagnose and classify the strain of influenza you have, such as H1N1, your doctor may send your specimen to a specialized hospital or state lab for analysis.

Treatment

H1N1 flu is a virus just like any other strain of flu, but it does appear to respond to the antiviral medications Tamiflu and Relenza. These medications do not cure the illness, but they may shorten the duration, make symptoms less severe, or help you avoid it altogether if you are exposed. They are usually reserved for people who are at a higher risk of complications, so the likelihood of the virus developing a resistance to them is lessened.

Otherwise, treatment for most people mainly consists of comfort measures and treating symptoms as they occur. If you have asthma or emphysema, for instance, your doctor might add a medication to help relieve your respiratory symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

As with any type of flu, you should have a healthy respect for the H1N1 virus, but there's no reason to be afraid. Though complications can occur as a result of getting any type of flu, getting your annual flu vaccine, which also protects against H1N1, washing your hands regularly and thoroughly, and staying away from infected people can help lessen your risk of picking up any strain of flu.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Swine Flu?
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