As we're sure you've heard, there have been 40 confirmed cases of swine flu in the U.S., and as many as 100 deaths in Mexico. But if you have flu-like symptoms, chances are it's just the common seasonal flu that’s stretched into the spring. And so far, swine flu cases in the U.S. have been mild.
The 40 confirmed U.S. cases of swine flu (which you can see geographically on this Google Maps mashup) included seven in California, two in Kansas, eight in New York City, one in Ohio, and two in Texas as of Sunday morning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have also been suspected and confirmed cases in Canada, New Zealand, Spain, France, Israel and Brazil.
Although it’s unclear whether there will be more severe cases of swine flu, the White House declared a national health emergency Sunday to allow the release of about 12 million doses of anti-flu medications—in case they’re needed—from a U.S. stockpile gathered during the avian flu scare a few years ago.
How to Spot Swine Flu
Human-to-human transmission of swine flu is possible, but people most at risk of contracting the illness are those with direct contact with pigs. (This doesn’t include eating pork.) Person-to-person transmission occurs in the same way the seasonal flu is spread: if you touch something with flu virus on it, then touch your mouth or nose.
Swine flu, like the more common seasonal flu, can cause symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting associated with swine flu, according to the CDC.
If You Have Symptoms
Most people don’t need antiviral drugs to fully recover from the flu, the CDC says. To prevent hospital crowding, and since many U.S. cases are improving or have been resolved on their own, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has urged New Yorkers not to go to the emergency room if they have typical flu symptoms. But if your situation is particularly dire (for example, if you’re having trouble breathing) you should seek medical attention right away. You should also see a doctor if you have chest pain, purple or blue discoloration of the lips, you’re vomiting and unable to keep liquids down, have signs of dehydration, seizures or confusion.
In the worst-case scenario, both types of flu could lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure and even death, and people with chronic medical conditions may be more likely to develop severe conditions. Also, bacterial infections could occur at the same time as or after influenza, which can lead to ear infections or sinus infections.
If a doctor suspects you have swine flu, a swab of the fluids in your throat would be tested for the virus and a nasal swab, sputum sample, blood samples and a urine specimen may also be required. Whether it’s swine flu or not, people experiencing signs of influenza should stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them, according to the CDC.
People experiencing flu complications could benefit from prescription antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir, known by the brand name Tamiflu (Stock Quote: GILD), or zanamivir, known by the brand name name Relenza (Stock Quote: GSK). (There are no generic forms of either drug available in the U.S.) The drugs can also be used to prevent infection. Since you’ll need a prescription for these drugs, seeing your doctor will help determine whether you actually need antiviral treatment.
If you’ve been vaccinated for the common flu, you may be partially protected from the swine flu, according to the CDC.
How to Prevent Spreading the Flu
To protect yourself from the virus, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Wash your hands often with soap and water. You can also use alcohol-based hands sanitizers.
To prevent the spread of the flu, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And use the bend of your elbow so you don’t get germs on your hands, which would increase the likelihood that they’ll be spread to others.
For more information on the swine flu, visit PandemicFlu.gov.