Caring Currents

Swine Flu: 10 Things You Need to Know to Protect Seniors

Last updated: Apr 29, 2009

Robin and Phil

By now we've all heard about the scary new swine flu, a strain of influenza type A that's sickened or killed many people in Mexico and has spread to the U.S. The number of U.S. cases now tops, with the majority of cases in New York, Texas, and California with many other states having a few cases, often involving people just returned from Mexico. The good news is that so far, those who've gotten sick here in the U.S. have had a milder form of the flu than those in Mexico, and there haven't been any deaths. Still, it's a scary time, and you're no doubt thinking about what you need to do to protect your family. Here's what you need to know.

  1. Swine flu spreads easily, so self-protection is key. The reason health officials are so worried is that this new flu strain -- a combination of viruses from birds, pigs, and humans -- seems to spread easily and rapidly. And since it's new, we don't have any natural immunity to it yet. The fact that most cases are occurring in clusters, such as groups of students in a specific school, suggests that the flu is spread by close contact. But authorities don't know exactly how, so it's important to be very careful, especially when coming in close contact with others. When possible, avoid going into crowded settings where you or family members will have to be in close contact with a lot of people. Although we've all seen the photos of people in face masks in Mexico, here in the U.S. officials don't consider them necessary unless you have to be somewhere where you think it's likely you'll be in close contact with people who may be ill, such as in a doctor's office.

  2. Protect yourself and your family with good hygiene. The best way to protect family members from swine flu is to practice all the usual tactics -- except step them up even more. Wash your hands often, and carry hand sanitizer to use after touching door handles, shopping carts, and other public surfaces. Make sure all family members have a supply of tissues in their pocket or purse and cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with your hands if you can help it; if you have germs on your hands you can infect yourself this wey. If anyone in the family is sick, keep them home from school or work to rest up and prevent infecting others.

  3. Getting a flu shot won't help. The combination of influenza strains in this year's flu vaccine did not include Influenza A/H1N1, the swine flu strain, so getting a flu shot now won't help. If you had a flu shot, you're protected against many other flu strains, just not this one. Although it's possible having had a flu shot may confer some protection -- some experts believe one of the reasons the flu is milder here in America could be the high vaccination rate.

  4. Watch carefully for symptoms. The symptoms of this new flu strain are typical of most flus, with a few exceptions. It tends to come on a little more suddenly, and gastrointestinal symptoms seem to be more common. Here's a rundown of symptoms to watch for:

     "¢  fever  
     "¢  cough  
     "¢  sore throat  
     "¢  stuffy nose  
     "¢  headache  
     "¢  chills and achiness  
     "¢  vomiting  
     "¢  diarrhea  

    While fever is usually the first indicator of the flu, there have been cases of swine flu reported in which the person did not have a fever. So if a family member has severe congestion, a cough, and sore throat but no fever, it's worth getting it checked out.

  5. Call the doctor if you're concerned. If someone in your family member is sick and has been out of the country recently, particularly to Mexico, call the doctor. If a family member's sick but hasn't been in contact with any source of swine flu, there's less reason to worry, but feel free to call the doctor if you're worried. Don't wait to call the doctor if the sick person is older, pregnant, or immune compromised.

  6. Swine flu can only be diagnosed with a lab test. Since it's not easy to distinguish the swine flu from other types of flu, doctors need to test for it by sending a sample of the virus to a laboratory. If your doctor thinks you or a family member's at risk, he'll use a nasal swab that will then be sent to a state lab to determine if the virus is H1N1, the strain that's causing the current epidemic.

  7. Swine flu is curable with antivirals. The flu strain that's causing all the trouble, known officially as A/H1N1, responds to two antiviral drugs that are currently available, Tamiflu and Relenza. The companies that manufacture these two drugs have stepped up production to make sure there's enough available to treat all cases that are diagnosed.

  8. Older adults are at higher risk of complications. Although the majority of swine flu cases have been in teens and younger adults, it's important to protect older adults because they're more at risk for the types of complications that can become serious, or even life-threatening. These include respiratory infection and pneumonia. So if an older family member develops flu symptoms, it's very likely your doctor will recommend a test for swine flu.

  9. It's safe to eat pork. Government experts say there haven't been any reports of swine flu being transmitted through food, so it's safe to eat pork and pork products. But you do want to take care to cook pork thoroughly at high heat, which is the general rule anyway. When roasting, use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature in a ham or pork roast is 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In the past, there have been cases of swine flu being transmitted from pigs to humans, but it wasn't through meat; it was through contact with the live animals themselves. This hasn't happened with this outbreak, but hog farmers are taking steps to protect pigs from the virus.

  10. There won't be a vaccine available for months. It will take at least four months for pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine for the new swine flu strain. They're gearing up to do so if the situation reaches the crisis stage, in which case they'll receive orders from the World Health Organization.