What is Swine Flu and how is it different from regular winter Flus?

The 2009 outbreak of swine flu began in Mexico, with the first cases appearing in March 2009. This particular influenza strain has captured attention because it spreads easily from person to person and because it is killing about 10% of the people who catch it.

What makes this this influenza strain so deadly? Let’s start at the beginning. The swine flu, like any strain of influenza, comes from a virus. A virus is not a living thing like a bacteria. A virus is a little package of inert genetic material. The virus particle attaches to a living cell and injects the genetic material into it. The virus’s genetic material hijacks the cell’s normal RNA/DNA machinery and tells the cell to create copies of the virus. Then the cell bursts, and hundreds of virus particles are released to repeat the cycle.


Obviously this would be a fatal problem if left unchecked. All of the target cells in your body would get infected and burst. Fortunately you have an immune system that detects the viral invasion and starts destroying the virus particles.

The Difference between Seasonal Flu and Swine Flu

Some people already have enough trouble determining if they have a cold or a flu; the symptoms are similar, although the flu's symptoms are a bit more intense. But it may be especially difficult to know if you have swine flu or seasonal flu, as the symptoms are, again, extremely similar. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Swine flu patients also report diarrhea and vomiting, not usually present in seasonal flu. 

A laboratory test is the only way to confirm a case of swine flu, but few tests have been done as most swine flu cases thus far look like a bout with seasonal flu. Many people recover without needing any medication or hospitalization, and some might not even know they're ill. The mild nature of swine flu has led some to question why there needs to be any worry, as deaths have been far less than those attributable to seasonal flu. In the United States alone, one flu season can require 200,000 hospitalizations and cause 36,000 deaths [source: CDC]. The seasonal flu can be especially dangerous for infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.


However, because the current H1N1 influenza is completely new and no one has immunity, public health officials warn that swine flu could eventually cause more complications than seasonal flu does. Not only will there be more complications, they'll likely be more serious. So far, doctors have reported that swine flu is more likely to result in viral pneumonia, as opposed to bacterial pneumonia often seen in seasonal flu cases; the bacterial version is much easier to treat than the viral kind.

Even if you don't know if you have swine flu or seasonal flu, head to the doctor if you start to experience symptoms that aren't part of a typical flu experience; these may be the warning signs of serious swine flu complications. Pregnant women and adults aged 5 to 24 are thought to be at higher risk of swine flu complications, so be particularly alert if you fall into those groups. On the other hand, seasonal flu complications usually affect the elderly and children under 5. That means everyone needs to remain vigilant about their health in the coming months.

Because swine flu and seasonal flu are transmitted in the same way, everyone can be on watch when it comes to prevention. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands often and stay home when you're sick. Whether you have seasonal or swine flu, you'll be doing everyone around you a favor.