The recent outbreak of swine flu (H1N1) was declared an official public health emergency by the U.S. government last wee. Caused by an influenza virus commonly found in pigs, swine flu is a respiratory disease that can be contracted by humans. It cannot, however, be transmitted by eating pork.

  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says symptoms are very similar to common influenza and include fever, body aches, chills, sore throat and fatigue. If left untreated, swine flu can be fatal.

  "Always be cautious if you start with any of these symptoms," says Carol Scioneaux, a nurse and director of infection control at East Jefferson General Hospital. "Immediately contact your primary-care physician, especially if you experience more serious symptoms such as sudden dizziness, difficulty breathing or excessive vomiting."

  Like other flus, swine flu is contagious and can be spread by contact or through airborne particles produced by coughs and sneezes. Oftentimes a person touches something that has the virus on it, then touches his or her nose, eyes or mouth. Common contaminated surfaces include doorknobs, desks or other items frequently touched by people. Once a person is infected with the virus, it can take one to seven days for symptoms to appear. During that time, an infected person may spread the disease without knowing they have it.

  Health care professionals say the first line of defense against catching swine flu is to practice good hygiene, especially hand washing, and to use a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then disposing of it promptly. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow. Washing your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds can help kill germs. You also can use alcohol-based gels to disinfect your hands. It's also advisable to avoid close contact with anyone who has the virus and to clean areas at home and work with disinfectants.

  "We are on the down slope of our normal flu season," Scioneaux says. "The same practices that protect against the regular flu are the practices that can protect against irregular flu strains throughout the year. Some viruses may live on surfaces two hours or more. That is why we stress hand washing, keeping your hands away from your face as much as possible and staying vigilant on protecting yourself."

  Staying in good overall health is another important way to protect against any kind of flu. Eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly and keeping stress levels low will help your body fight off viruses or lessen the severity of a flu you do catch. Maintaining good health also helps prevent severe chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which may worsen with the flu.

  At this time, there is no vaccine to prevent swine flu. If you develop flu symptoms, your physician may prescribe antiviral medications or suggest over-the-counter medications along with recommending you drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.

  For continually updated information about swine flu, visit the CDC Web site at

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