Swine Flu: Symptoms and Treatment. Is There a Vaccine?

Important facts about Swine Flu, symptoms, how to recognize it, treatments, and vaccination options

Swine influenza is a respiratory disease of pigs. It was isolated in 1930. It is caused by Influenza type A which brings about the disease in pigs. This happens on a pretty regular basis and doesn’t cause many deaths in pigs. The pigs certainly get ill and it happens with a large number of pigs usually in the fall and winter months of the year. That is when most of the human population gets their versions of influenza injections as well, better known as “the flu shot”.

Every year the flu vaccines that are received by humans are just a bit different. The virus used to make our flu injection is grown in a lab dish to make a vaccine that most likely matches the strain of the influenza that is expected that season. The strains of flu morph every season and although the symptoms of the flu are the same or mostly similar to the last year’s strain, the vaccinations can be targeted to the specific strain or species of the virus that will affect people that year. If a person get the vaccination and still gets ill with the flu it is said that it is possible the person got a strain of the flu that was more severe or not covered in the vaccination the person received. It is impossible to cover every variation of a virus that is continually changing.

Viruses can change constantly and that is the same of the swine flu. Pigs can become infected with other viruses that have reassorted or "swapped genes" and a new strain of the virus is born. Pigs can get infected with avian (bird) flu, human and other strains of swine flu from other pigs too and then the reassorting/ gene swapping begins again creating a new subtype of that virus.

There is a vaccine to protect pigs from the virus but currently no vaccine to protect humans from catching swine flu. A seasonal influenza vaccination grown and manufactured for humans will only partially protect a person. Since there are 4 substrains of swine influenza type A, the seasonal flu shot will give a person only partial protection from only one of the variations of the swine flu but not against the main species of the swine flu that we are seeing in the world news in the past week or so.

The symptoms of swine flu closely mimic the symptoms of human influenza. Coughing, fever, runny nose, fatigue, headache and a loss of appetite are consistent with both human and swine influenzas. Additional symptoms which may require being seen by a physician include chills, nausea, congestion, sore throat, lethargy, a fever over 101 degrees, vomiting and diarrhea which can bring about dehydration and put the sick person at additional risk. This will usually land the person a night or two in the hospital with IV fluids and meds. Swine flu doesn’t usually infect humans but this does occur when a person has close proximity with pigs that are infected and then is around other people. The person can catch the swine flu virus from the pigs that are infected and it is then passed on from an infected person to others through coughing, sneezing and casual contact. Just as in human influenza, if a person touches something which has the flu virus on it and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth they can then contract that virus.

With most viruses there is a window period called “shedding”. That would be the ideal time where sputum (a respiratory sample coughed up) is obtained and sent to the CDC for examination. During this shedding period, there has not been sufficient time for the body to send out any protection and the virus can be more readily identified. Shedding a virus is much like shedding old dead skin cells and can easily spread a virus during that time frame. For adults shedding a virus occurs most likely 4-5 days after the infection is received. The antigen can be identified most easily during that window period of shedding.

When an antigen, the invader disease state that infects the person, enters the body, there is an antibody response to that antigen or invader. That is when our little soldier cells (white cells) respond to the invading infection and build more and more little soldier cells to fight the infection. Children may shed longer due to decreased antibody loads due to age or vaccinations received thus far in their little lives. This antigen/ antibody response usually takes care of the invader and we get better but those persons who are compromised health wise have a much harder time of it. Persons with compromised pulmonary functions, diseases that do not allow for full recovery such as HIV and cystic fibrosis are also at increased risk and should take all precautions to avoid catching swine flu.

So how do we as a community protect ourselves against the swine flu?

Education. Education. Education.

Every year Health Departments around the country preach the gospel of Good Community Health through hand washing, cough control and sneeze protection for those around us. These are the 3 main things a person can do to protect themselves from almost any invader disease state. Just like condoms add barrier protection for those who use them, we, as a community, are asked to make a barrier of our own sniffles and sneezes to avoid passing our germs to the next person. Make it a practice to wash hands often, especially with children who don’t think to wash their hands and often share toys, food and germs. As adults it is necessary for us to make good examples of ourselves and teach our children good hand washing practices to avoid spreading diseases. This applies to avoiding passing a cold to avoiding passing on swine flu. Carry hand sanitizing gels or wipes if you feel you will be where there may not be adequate facilities for hand washing. Kleenexes now come in varieties where they capture germs on the tissues and the germs are disposed with the tissues. Zinc is always a good option for staying healthy. Sleep and a proper diet can also help, but barrier methods and cleanliness work the best for not passing on germs and infections.

If you or a loved one comes down with an illness that you suspect could be the swine flu it may be best to see a physician if the symptoms begin to mimic a worse illness than just a regular flu. If there is fever, persistent coughing that sounds like a barking, fever, vomiting or diarrhea, go to a healthcare professional and get checked out. An ounce of prevention is worth a lot in this situation, but when that fails, is there a pound of cure to be had?

Testing has shown that the human swine influenza H1N1 (the main strain of swine influenza) can be treated with the antivirals oseltamavir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). If you suspect you may have had contact with someone who has any symptoms of the swine flu it may be necessary to be on antiviral therapy to avoid spreading the disease and to recover. If there are any further questions or concerns about the state of your health and swine flu, please contact your healthcare professional for early treatment.


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