Getting infected with the H1N1 virus that causes swine flu is a real possibility since the virus is continuing to spread and there's still not enough vaccine to go around. Being informed, though, can help you reduce your risk. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself and your family.
1. Pregnant women need one shot; young kids, two. Initial results from clinical trials show that pregnant women mount a healthy immune response after just one dose of the vaccine. They do, though, need the injectable version—which contains a dead virus—rather than the nasal spray, which contains a live but weakened virus. Other adults and children ages 10 and over also need only one dose for full immunity. (They can have either the shot or nasal spray.) Children 6 months through 9 years, however, need two doses—spaced about a month apart—in order to mount a strong enough immune response if exposed to the virus. And kids under age 2, like pregnant women, should have only the injectable vaccine.
2. Hand sanitizer works better than soap when it comes to the flu virus. While you should still wash your hands to get the grime off or after using the bathroom, hand sanitizer is the cleanser of choice when trying to keep your hands germ free for hours. The Food and Drug Administration recommends products that consist of at least 60 percent alcohol. Look past the "Kills 99.9 percent of germs" on the front of the package and instead check the "drug facts" label on the back. It should list the active ingredient as some form of alcohol and the percent. (The drugstore brand on my desk says "ethyl alcohol 62%".) And use the sanitizer correctly: Make sure your hands are clean and then apply a palmful of the product, rubbing vigorously for 20 to 30 seconds under your nails and jewelry, up to your wrists and on the backs of your hands. Interestingly, hand sanitizer leaves skin less dry than soap because most products contain emollients.
3. Many swine flu remedies are too good to be true. The FDA recently warned against buying non-FDA-approved swine flu products on the Internet and in health food stores. These include bogus versions of the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Real Tamiflu is available only by prescription. The FDA analyzed one "Tamiflu" product ordered online and found that it contained not the antiviral drug but talc and acetaminophen. Other bogus products include shampoos or dietary supplements purporting to protect against the flu virus. Here's a complete listing and other bogus swine flu remedies to avoid.
4. Certain warning signs warrant an emergency room visit. The American College of Emergency Physicians says that most folks with flulike symptoms (fever, sore throat, chills, cough, and fatigue) don't need to head to the emergency room—or even to the doctor. But people should seek out emergency care immediately if they experience the following symptoms: difficulty breathing or chest pain; rapid breathing (over 24 breaths per minute); purple or blue discoloration of the lips; inability to keep liquids down; signs of dehydration (headache, extreme thirst, dizziness, or decreased urination); confusion; or convulsions or seizures. Pregnant women, those over 65, and those with certain health conditions (such as obesity, organ transplant, diabetes, and lung problems) also should seek medical attention from their doctor or a walk-in clinic, even if they have mild symptoms.
5. The vaccine is as safe as the seasonal flu vaccine. Anthony Fauci, who's heading the H1N1 vaccine clinical trials for the National Institutes of Health, said Tuesday that people have no reason to fear the vaccine. All evidence collected so far in the trials suggests that it poses no health risks—not in children, pregnant women, or older folks. There have been some reports of adverse reactions, but they've been mild, like swelling or pain at the injection site.
6. High-risk individuals—like pregnant women and babies—should possibly avoid travel. Since the flu epidemic has yet to reach its peak, those at higher risk of developing severe complications from an H1N1 infection should consider putting off air travel if they haven't been vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. That's because many folks can pick up the infection from a crowded airport or airplane. If you're in a high-risk category and must travel, talk to your doctor about whether to take along antiviral medications just in case you get sick and can't get quick medical care.
7. If you've already got a fever, definitely stay home. Traveling with a fever is a no-no, since that's when you're most contagious. You also don't want to put extra stress on your body when it's calling for you to crawl into bed. While U.S. airports don't have temperature sensors, foreign airports often do. If you set off the sensor while abroad, you could be forced into quarantine until your illness runs its course.