How do you know if you have swine flu or seasonal flu?

A postal worker holds up a leaflet giving information about swine flu in Cromarty, Scotland, on May 5, 2009. The government distributed leaflets to all U.K. households giving information about swine flu and advice on how to prevent its spread.
A postal worker holds up a leaflet giving information about swine flu in Cromarty, Scotland, on May 5, 2009. The government distributed leaflets to all U.K. households giving information about swine flu and advice on how to prevent its spread.
Photo Illustration by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

There comes a time of year when no place seems safe. You enter a crowded bus or subway car only to see runny noses and sallow, sickly complexions. You hear sniffles and sneezes in the grocery store and the gym. An entire day at work might be spent listening to a co-worker hack up his or her lung. And anywhere you might encounter children seems like a minefield; while these young minds soak up knowledge at school, their bodies attract all manner of germs. No doubt about it: Cold and flu season is a terrifying time.

However, we may soon long for the innocent, carefree days when the cold or flu was all we had to worry about. Just a year ago, pigs were more likely to be characters in children's books than to star in the punch lines of late night television shows. That was before the spring of 2009, when the first case of swine flu was documented in Mexico. Swine flu frenzy gripped the world, and sales of face masks and antibacterial hand lotions skyrocketed. Whispering the words "swine flu" on a plane might have been likened to yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater.


The 2009 virus circulating the world isn't strictly swine flu; rather, it's a mix of swine, avian and human influenza viruses that has never been seen before in humans. Public health organizations prefer names that feature some combination of H1N1, the year 2009 and type A influenza when referring to the disease, but the term "swine flu" remains lodged in the public's vernacular. Officials warn that we might be hearing more about it as the 2009 cold and flu season approaches.

In the upcoming months, we'll be dealt the double whammy of seasonal flu season and a potential second wave of swine flu. What's the difference between the two?


The Differences Between Seasonal Flu and Swine Flu

A pregnant woman with swine flu symptoms receiving medical treatment in Argentina.
A pregnant woman with swine flu symptoms receiving medical treatment in Argentina.
Associated Press/Pablo Barrera

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.

Recent work with ferrets, who experience flu much the same way humans do, suggests why the complications from swine flu might be so much worse. In 2009, researchers found that the seasonal flu virus binds itself to ferrets' noses, but that swine flu went deeper, binding itself to the trachea, bronchi and bronchioles in the lungs [source: Reinberg]. The virus even made its way to the ferrets' intestines, which may explain the diarrhea and vomiting that distinguish swine flu. The H1N1 virus replicated much more often in the ferrets, too, causing more extensive damage.

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.


Lots More Information

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