Kids Love Dr. Barton

What Parents Should Know About Swine Flu

by Dr. Douglas Barton, M.D., Pediatrician 05/01/2009

It’s all everyone is talking about on the news. Some parents are becoming “freaked out” by what they’re hearing…which is totally understandable. With so much “information” out there, it’s hard to know what to follow and who to believe. Let’s take a look at the basics and see what we can learn.

The Swine Flu is really a different form of influenza A. Each year, in the United States, influenza A and influenza B sweep through the country during the months of January through March. This is what we normally call “flu season.” Every year in the United States somewhere around 40,000 people die of influenza or its complications. These deaths, usually in the very young and the very old, are why the flu vaccine is highly recommended for certain age groups and certain populations of people. Each year, the genetic make-up of the influenza virus changes. This is why there is a different vaccine each year. It is also why we have to get a flu vaccine annually instead of the usual 2 or 3 shots with boosters every so many years. The usual flu only has genetic information from viruses that infect humans.

The difference between the Swine Flu and the usual flu is this genetic make-up. This current batch of Swine Flu has pieces of DNA (genetic material) from pig flu, bird flu and human flu. This combination of genetic material makes this virus unique. Most of us have had some exposure to regular flu. When our immune system sees this, it makes a response that makes our bodies less sensitive to other flu exposures. The “swine” flu is different enough that our bodies haven’t made a response to it. Since the body hasn’t built up immunity to it, most of us are susceptible to catching it. This is one of the reasons this illness seems to be spreading rapidly. For those of us who watch the annual flu season, this spread doesn’t really seem any more rapid than any other flu.

There is some evidence that the usual influenza vaccine will provide a small amount of protection against the Swine Flu. This is believed to be one of the reasons why it is young adults (who have not had the vaccine) that are most susceptible to this virus.

The flu is a respiratory virus. It is caught by sneezing, coughing, or kissing, just like any cold. It can also be caught by shaking hands with someone who has coughed into their hand and then rubbing your hand on your nose or eyes. You can not catch it by eating pork (although undercooked pork is not without other dangers).

Persons catching the “Swine Flu” show symptoms that are identical to any other influenza infection: fever, muscle aches, cough, congestion and fatigue. There have been some reports of vomiting and diarrhea with this infection, but for most people, there is no vomiting or diarrhea. If you don’t have a fever and muscle aches, you probably do not have  Swine Flu. If you do have fever, muscle aches, and fatigue, you should call your doctor. You should know that at this point, Missouri doctors have been instructed to ONLY test patients who have flu symptoms along with a fever AND who have recently traveled to an area where Swine Flu has been confirmed OR have had contact with someone who meets the above description.

The rapid flu test, which involves a nasal swab and a few minutes of your time, can detect the Swine Flu in most cases. If this test is positive (which must be confirmed through the state laboratory), Tamiflu and Relenza, two ordinary flu medicines, have been shown to treat it and your doctor will prescribe one or the other for you.

In short, while this may seem like a relatively scary time, good hand washing and good respiratory hygiene will help prevent illness, and for most people this flu should not be any worse than the regular flu bug that we see each winter.



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