Health officials around the globe have declared swine flu (officially known as novel H1N1 or 2009 H1N1) a pandemic. Although the virus itself was discovered quite recently, its spread has been closely monitored by governmental organizations and dutifully reported in the news.
Because it's a new virus, most of us don't have any natural immunity to it. Furthermore, there is concern that it may mutate into a more dangerous virus and create a health crisis that is on scale with the public alarm and media furor surrounding it. This unique virus has a combination of genes from existing human, bird and swine viruses. (Its name is a result of the swine flu genes being discovered first.)
So aside from panicking and staying glued to your cable news outlet, what can you do to protect yourself against swine flu this season? First off, you can start by listening to your mother. No, brushing your teeth won't help, but another oft-advised form of cleaning can. Read on to find out what it is.
Wash Your Hands
It's probably not a good idea to think too hard about all of the germs, viruses, grime and gunk on our hands. Fortunately, our skin -- when unbroken -- keeps microscopic troublemakers at bay. But even when they haven't gained entry into your body, viruses don't mind waiting around to see if an opportunity presents itself. Maybe you'll nick a finger or give the virus a lift to a better location, like onto a bottle of ketchup in a restaurant, where it can catch a ride on a new host.
Swine flu virus -- like other flu viruses -- remains transmittable up to eight hours outside the human body. This means your co-worker, entering the workplace at nine in the morning, can pass the virus on to the door handle, which could then be passed on to your hands as you leave the building at the end of the day.
Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for about 20 seconds, especially when you're interacting with others, spending time in public places or hanging around anyone who has flulike symptoms. You may also use alcohol-based germicides, as long as you rub your hands together until they're dry.
Whether you're avoiding swine flu or you already have it, washing your hands frequently is the best way to contain the spread of swine flu.
But I don't nick my fingers, so why worry if my virus-proof skin has viruses on it? Keep reading to find out.
Don't Touch Your Eyes, Mouth or Nose
All day long, largely without noticing, we touch our hands to our face for any number of reasons: to rub our nose, wipe something out of our eyes or clean our lips. Maybe we want to look thoughtful by stroking our chins or need to dislodge a sesame seed from our teeth.
If you do get the swine flu virus on your hands, you can become infected mainly through one of two ways: The virus penetrates your skin through a tiny abrasion, or, more likely, it enters your body by way of your eyes, mouth or nose.
Novel H1N1 is very contagious, and most of us don't have any natural immunity against it. Also, no matter how often we wash our hands, there will be opportunities for the virus to be present on our hands for some length of time before we have the chance to wash them. For this reason, it's important to try not to touch your eyes, mouth or nose throughout your day. Of course, now that you're concentrating on it, your nose seems really itchy, doesn't it? Well, resist the urge as best you can until after your hands are clean, and only then immediately after they've been washed.
Next: bad news for social butterflies.
Avoid Crowds Like the Plague
There's plenty in life to worry about, and swine flu is certainly no reason to isolate yourself from the rest of the world. But depending on the severity of its spread, and upon your own general state of health, you may want to avoid large crowds or situations that will put you into direct contact with many people.
You don't have to be a hermit, but you may not want to be a social butterfly either. If you catch swine flu, it will most likely be the result of standing within a few feet of an infected person, or picking up the virus from a shopping cart, door handle or other such shared surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
If you have a weakened immune system, are pregnant or have other health issues that may make you more susceptible to illness, you'll want to take precautions when out and about in public. Steer clear of sick friends and relatives until they're at least a week on the other side of their illness. Listen for school closures, not only to protect any children you may have, but to stay aware of a possible spike in flu transmission in your area.
You won't have to be a hermit in a cave, nor should you be (unless that's your thing). So when you do go out, just remember two very important things: Wash your hands frequently with either soap and water or hand sanitizer, and don't touch your face!
Flu unto Others as You Would Have Them Flu unto You
There's plenty you can do to prevent the spread of swine flu, especially if you're the person who has swine flu.
If you have flu symptoms, immediately behave the way you would like an infectious person to behave around you on an otherwise glorious day. Don't go out and about and carry on with your normal routine. Stay home at least one full day until your fever breaks, unless you need medical attention or supplies.
Stay away from kids. If you can, tell those you've had contact with in the past few days -- especially if they have children -- that you've come down with a touch of swine flu and they should keep an eye out for symptoms. It makes for an interesting conversation starter as long as that conversation is occurring over the telephone and not in person.
Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wash your hands afterward. Make sure to keep your hands clean, and to disinfect door handles, furniture or anything that a visitor may come in contact with.
You should lay as low as possible for a week. Catch up on some reading. Have that nice, 36-hour-long nap you've been craving lately. Before your re-entry into society, throw away all used tissues and wash your bedding and clothing.
Vaccines give your body a leg up in this battle. Flu vaccines introduce into your body weakened versions of the flu strain, thus prompting the production of antibodies by your immune system. These antibodies are then in place to battle the "wild" virus, should it enter your system.
A vaccine for swine flu is (at the time of this writing in August 2009) being fast-tracked through development for widespread distribution to the public. The CDC recommends you get vaccinated, especially if you have a condition that puts you at high risk of flu complications, such as asthma, diabetes, pregnancy or anything that weakens your immune response.
A prior immunization effort against swine flu in 1976 resulted in some people developing Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a serious neurological disorder. All vaccines carry the risk of unwanted side effects, and the risk is generally very low. Many side effects aren't discovered until millions of people are vaccinated, and those one-in-a-million possibilities become realities.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have about the vaccine. The CDC and WHO believe any risks associated with the vaccine is secondary to the risks involved in contracting swine flu.
If you want to learn more about swine flu, try links to more HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.
Despite strict closing and hygiene orders, San Francisco was hit hard by the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Some balked at the rules and that meant more people died.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bohan, Suzanne. "Fall flu season may be a doozy, feds warn." Contra Costa Times. Aug. 19, 2009.http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_13161410?source=rss&nclick_check=1
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Background Information on Influenza in Pigs." June 15, 2009.http://www.cdc.gov/flu/swineflu/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Novel H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Aug. 5, 2009. (Aug. 21, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/H1N1flu/qa.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs." Oct. 6, 2006. (Aug. 18, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm
- Roan, Shari. "Do face masks help prevent swine flu infection?" The Los Angeles Times. Apr. 28, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sciw-swine-masks28-2009apr28,0,4722242.story
- World Health Organization. "Pandemic (H1N1) 2009." (Aug. 17, 2009)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en/
- World Health Organization. "Safety of Pandemic Vaccines." Aug. 6, 2009.http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/notes/h1n1_safety_vaccines_20090805/en/index.html