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Flu Facts: Staying Healthy During H1N1 Season

By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Healthnotes Newswire (September 10, 2009)—As kids head back to school, it may seem that the H1N1 Influenza, the so-called “swine flu,” is as inevitable as homework. The good news is that a level head and simple precautions will reduce the likelihood that you and your children become infected with the virus. And in the unfortunate event that swine flu pays a visit, health experts reassure us that swine flu does not appear to be causing illness that is significantly more severe than typical seasonal flu for most healthy people.

Putting flu fears into perspective

According to Dr. Jorge Parada, associate professor of medicine of infectious diseases at Loyola University, Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago, the heightened worry over H1N1 is particularly acute because “it’s new and the data we have are not well established.” Even so, Dr. Parada stresses that while concern is warranted, there is no reason to panic.

Who should do what, when

Health experts stress that, as in any flu season, certain groups—mostly the same as during regular flu season—should take special precautions to avoid getting sick. Those at the highest risk of serious, flu-related complications from H1N1 include pregnant women and people with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and kidney disease. People with suppressed immune systems and neurocognitive disorders, such as dementia, or neuromuscular disorders, such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, may also develop more serious complications.

If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated against both seasonal and H1N1 influenza viruses as soon as these vaccines become available. At this time, H1N1 vaccines are expected to be available in mid-to-late October 2009. Check with your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website (www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu) for updates.

What’s the diff?

Again mirroring the familiar seasonal flu, H1N1 illness ranges from mild to severe. Symptoms are similar to seasonal flu as well, and include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.

One positive difference about the H1N1 virus is that people over age 64 may be less prone to it. And when infected, people over 64 also appear to be less likely to experience serious, flu-related complications that require hospitalization.

However, even though the risk of serious complications from swine flu are similar to seasonal flu for the rest of the population, the total number of those at risk of more serious illness may be higher overall, as organizations like the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have forecasted that infection may spread to as much as 50% of the US in 2009 and 2010.

Weighing the risks: vaccination vs. virus

People who feel vulnerable to infection may be reassured that a study conducted by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle indicates that an aggressive vaccination campaign that begins with children and aims to vaccinate 70% of the population will keep H1N1 under control.

Keep in mind that some people cannot be vaccinated due to allergies or other health problems. Others are concerned that the H1N1 vaccine is relatively untested. And others have raised that the 1976 swine flu vaccine was associated with increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS; a condition in which the body damages the nerve cells causing muscle weakness and temporary paralysis, and in rare cases permanent nerve damage or death). According to the CDC, only one of several studies since then has suggested a link, and that only one person out of 1 million may be at increased risk.

If you have allergies, are managing serious health problems, believe you may be at higher than average risk of GBS, or have concerns about the risks of trying untested medicine, talk to your doctor about whether a vaccine is right for you.

Flu prevention reminders

To reduce the risk of H1N1 and other infections:

• Wash your hands often—and take your time. Use regular soap with warm water, and wash for 20 full seconds. (About the time it takes to sing the Alphabet Song.) Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizers to use in a pinch and keep your favorite hand lotion near the hand-washing stations in your house to avoid drying out your skin.

• Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, which can allow germs access to your body.

• Boost your immune system. Support your basic health by making sure to get enough sleep; getting plenty of water, fruits, and vegetables; avoiding sugar and alcohol binges, and taking supportive supplements such as vitamin C (100 to 1,000 mg per day) and andrographis (48 to 60 mg of standardized andrographolides in two to three divided doses daily). Evidence on their effectiveness for warding off infections is mixed, but you may feel better by taking active steps to safeguard your health.

Flu management reminders

If you or your family members are infected, take precautions to manage the illness and limit the chances you spread infection to others.

• Call immediately. If you think you have the flu, call your doctor right away. Antiviral medications work best when taken within one to two days of first having symptoms.

• Keep the right medications on hand. Keep acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, on hand for children and teens. Ibuprofen and aspirin are only safe for adults and should not be given to kids.

• Practice basic flu combat. Make sure you get enough sleep, keep healthy comfort foods on hand (avoid sugar and excessively fatty foods), and drink plenty of water.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, to prevent contaminating your hands and spreading the germs to other surfaces you touch.

• Give it 24. Wait a full 24 hours after fever subsides (without the use of fever-reducing medication) to go back to work or school. For example, if your child’s last fever occurred at 2 pm, he or she should not go back to school the next day. Wait one additional day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Swine Influenza (Flu). Available at: www.cdc.gov/swineflu; Are We in for a Repeat of the Killer Flu Pandemic of 1918? Available at: http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/555970/

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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