Swine Flu: The Facts amid the Fear

Worries about dangerous strains of the flu have swept around the world — a pandemic of anxiety about getting ill or dying from infection with a scary virus, like the swine flu.

Some influenza threats become even more frightening because they're associated with animals. Who knows what horrible things could happen if birds or pigs were able pass their germs to people. At the least, we'd have to stay out of the way of domestic livestock and wild creatures. At the worst, we might start taking on mutant characteristics — half man, half hog.

What's the swine flu really all about?

Viruses can mutate, and that's just how the so-called "swine flu" broke into our headlines. Influenza A (H1N1) combines flu viruses that cause sickness in pigs, birds, and humans. Because people are susceptible to the disease, each of us can pass H1N1 to another human being.

When an illness touches populations around the world, the widespread infection earns the term, "pandemic." Pandemic does not mean that the disease has been proven to cause severe symptoms or death in its victims. A pandemic flu can be mild, but it most certainly is far reaching.

The H1N1 flu acts like any other flu. You can catch the bug through someone else's cough, sneeze, or close-up conversation. If a germ carrier, who may be contagious a day before even showing symptoms, coughs or sneezes on an object, that item becomes a camping ground for the virus, too.

Because H1N1 is the new flu on the block, the last round of available flu shots are not likely to provide any protection for this strain. When more is known about H1N1, a vaccine may be developed and distributed. Practicing precaution is always a smart way to avoid infection.

How do I protect myself from the flu?

To minimize your exposure to flu germs, follow your mother's advice:

  • Stay away from people who are sick. Try not to touch anything that someone's handled if you know that the person has been ill recently.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. Pesky flu bugs are more than ready to march in . . . and claim a new victim.
  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands . . . and then, wash your hands.

To stay healthy throughout the year (in the midst of and beyond spring and fall flu seasons), get plenty of sleep, eat well, drink lots of fluids, and don't stress out.

If I catch the swine flu, what do I do?

Allergies and other illnesses can make you wonder if you're coming down with the flu. Here are some common flu symptoms:

  • Feeling unusually tired
  • Having a sore throat
  • Coughing a lot
  • Feeling congestion in your chest
  • Aching throughout your body
  • Having a headache
  • Registering a high fever when you take your body temperature

Some sufferers also have experienced vomiting and diarrhea as flu symptoms.

If you're feeling sick, and the symptoms fit, call your doctor right away. A simple test can reveal whether you're dealing with H1N1 or something else. If you've caught swine flu, your test results can help health care professionals track a possible epidemic.

Your physician can help you understand the disease and how your body may respond to symptom-reducing medications. Control spread of the flu by coughing or sneezing in tissues, rather than in your hands; limiting contact with others; and staying at home until you're well.

By the way, do I have to give up eating pork chops?

No. If you include pork in your diet, you can continue to enjoy meals and dishes made from this meat. Although pork always requires safe cooking conditions (making sure the temperature rises to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit), you won't risk flu infection from eating your favorite ribs, chops, roasts, or bacon.