Swine flu Q&A: What you need to know about the virus

By Richard Osley
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:52

What is swine flu?

It is a new strain of the flu virus, officially known as H1N1, currently spreading from human to human. The Health Protection Agency estimates that there were 100,000 new cases across England last week.

What is the most common symptom?

Severity varies but most common is a fever or a temperature of 38C/100.4F or above.

What else?

Swine flu symptoms are similar to normal winter flu. The virus is suspected if a high temperature is accompanied by two or more of the following: cough, headache, joint pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, sore throat, runny nose.

I have the symptoms – what now?

Check with the National Pandemic Flu Service: 0800 1513 100; www. pandemicflu.direct.gov.uk; Minicom: 0800 1 513 200. In Scotland: call 0845 4242424; www.nhs24. com. In Northern Ireland: call 0800 0514142; www.dhsspsni.gov.uk

Shouldn't I speak to a doctor?

To reduce the chance of spreading the virus, the advice is not to go to your local hospital or GP surgery. But it's important to phone your doctor if you have a serious underlying illness, you are pregnant or you have a sick child under the age of one.

Is everyone going to get it?

Everyone is potentially at risk of infection. In the majority of cases, symptoms are relatively mild and recovery is usually complete within a week.

So, what's all the fuss about?

Not every case is mild, and even people who appear healthy have been hit hard by the virus. So far, 30 people in the UK are thought to have died after contracting the virus. There are groups at higher risk of infection and complications. Children up to 14 have had the largest number of infections. Babies under the age of one have underdeveloped immune systems and are more at risk of complications, as are obese patients, and those with diabetes, kidney and heart disease and respiratory disorders.

And pregnant women?

Yes. Pregnant women who fall sick should seek advice from a doctor. During pregnancy, a woman's immune system is weakened and more susceptible to all infections. Women in the third trimester are considered more at risk.

So can it be cured?

There is no cure but there is medication that can lessen the impact. If the National Pandemic Flu Service believes you have swine flu, an authorisation code to collect antiviral medication will be issued. Familiar flu medications containing paracetamol may also relieve symptoms by reducing fever. Taking plenty of fluids has also been advised. A vaccine is in development with people in high-risk categories likely to get access to the first batches, expected to be ready in the UK by early September.

How is it spreading?

Just the way the normal, seasonal flu does. People can be infected when they breathe in tiny droplets released as somebody with the virus sneezes or coughs. It can also be passed on from infected surfaces, such as door handles and handrails on trains and buses, as the virus can survive for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces and about 20 minutes on soft surfaces.

Is there anything else I can do now?

To help limit the spread, wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Antibacterial, alcohol hand gels can stop the virus. When sneezing, catch all droplets in a clean tissue and dispose in a bin immediately. If you are diagnosed with swine flu, stay at home. Adults are generally infectious to others for five days, children for seven days. Do not go to work until all of the symptoms have cleared and you are fully recovered.

How long will swine flu virus be around?

Nobody knows for certain what course it will take. Health officials are preparing for a second wave in the autumn. It is feared that while most cases are causing mild symptoms, the virus could mutate later, possibly becoming more dangerous and resistant to medication.

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