Q& A

How to prevent getting swine flu and what to do if you have it

Among priority groups for vaccination are pregnant women, health-care and emergency medical personnel, and children.
Among priority groups for vaccination are pregnant women, health-care and emergency medical personnel, and children. (Matt Rourke/associated Press)
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, answers questions about H1N1 swine flu.

How can I tell if I have swine flu? And does it matter if it's that flu or the seasonal one?

Virtually all the cases of influenza occurring at this time are caused by 2009 H1N1. While individuals with severe flu-like illness are being tested to determine for certain which virus is causing the disease, there is no need for most people to get tested.

How do I know if I or someone in my family should go to the hospital?

Some key symptoms to watch for include rapid but shallow breathing, difficulty in breathing and lethargy or extreme weakness. A complete list of symptoms can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/sick.htm#3.

What is the best source of information about the H1N1 virus?

There are couple of Web sites that provide good general information on the H1N1 virus; the one I like for information to the general public is http://www.flu.gov, but be sure to check with your state or county public health department.

Who should get vaccinated? What are the priority groups?

There are several priority groups being targeted for vaccination while the vaccine is in short supply. The complete list is at http://www.flu.gov/individualfamily/vaccination/vprioritygroups.html but includes pregnant women, health-care and emergency medical personnel, household contacts or caregivers of children under the age of 6 months, anyone between the ages of 6 months and 24 years of age, and people age 25 to 64 who have underlying medical conditions.

What's the difference between nasal spray and injection? Who should get what kind?

The nasal-spray vaccine is a weakened form of the virus that does not cause influenza but does generate a good immune response. The injectable vaccine is an inactivated or "killed" form of the virus which is injected into the muscle of your arm. The nasal spray is only available to healthy individuals age 2 to 49, while the injectable vaccine is available to a wider range of the population. More information is available at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/vaccination/general.htm.

If I can't get the vaccine right away, is it still worth getting it later?

Yes. . . . We are not certain how long the flu season will last, or if we will have several flu seasons or "waves" this year, so when vaccine becomes available, everyone should take advantage of it.

How quickly does the vaccination take effect? Is it possible to come down with the flu soon after getting vaccinated?

After three weeks, most people have an immune response that will protect them from infection with 2009 H1N1. The immune response begins to be detected seven to seven to 10 days after vaccination. The vaccines cannot cause the flu, but you certainly could catch influenza during the time after vaccination when your body hasn't developed a strong anti-influenza immune response.

Should everyone who comes down with the flu take Tamiflu or Relenza?

No. The CDC guidelines recommend that only individuals who are in high-risk groups should receive Tamiflu or Relenza at the first sign of symptoms. If you develop symptoms of severe influenza, then you should seek out medical treatment and begin to take Tamiflu and Relenza. For most people who will come down with the mild form of the disease, the use of Tamiflu or Relenza is not recommended in order to ensure enough of the drugs are available.

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