Influenza season has already begun in Brazil, and with the risk of H1N1 influenza (previously called the swine flu), we should keep informed.
What is H1N1 influenza? Is this the swine flu?
There are several different types of influenza virus strains, and some of these originated in animals. Over the years, the viruses can mutate and spread to humans. The H1N2 virus originally started in pigs, then spread to people handling pigs, then finally to the general population. It gained fame in 2009, when it circulated worldwide. Now it comes back every year, and is concerning because it is more likely to cause complications such as pneumonia, especially in people with pre-existing health problems.
Are the symptoms different than regular influenza?
Basically the symptoms are the same as other types of flu: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, fatigue and stomach upset. People with H1N1 influenza may be somewhat sicker than people with other strains of influenza, and are more likely to have upset stomach.
How long are people infectious?
If you have this flu you are contagious starting a day before you even notice symptoms, and for about 7 days after you begin having symptoms.
How do I prevent it?
Influenza viruses are spread by people sneezing or coughing virus droplets into the air or onto surfaces, which another person touches. If that person then touches his eyes, nose, or mouth, the virus can then infect that person. So the best advice is:
— Wash your hands thoroughly and/or use alcohol gel frequently during the flu season, especially if you are in public places where you touch public surfaces (such as a handrail on an elevator)
— Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth unless you have washed your hands first
— Avoid shaking hands and kissing others socially, and keep your distance from anyone infected
— Get vaccinated. The vaccination campaign in Brazil is from April 30 to May 20. Persons in high-risk groups can receive the vaccine free at community health centers. The vaccine is also available at private clinics.
It the vaccine worthwhile?
Yes. While it is far from perfect (it diminishes your risk of getting the flu by about 60%), if you get the flu and have been vaccinated, you may be less likely to get severe symptoms or complications such as pneumonia. Even if you were vaccinated last year, you should get the vaccine again, at the beginning of every flu season. The vaccine changes yearly depending on the viruses that are circulating.
How about treatment?
Particularly if you have another chronic disease such as diabetes or asthma and get flu symptoms, you should contact your doctor or health center. But most people get better just with medications, found at any drug store, that reduce symptoms, as well as staying well hydrated by drinking lots of fluids.
Do antibiotics help?
No, antibiotics do not help, since antibiotics only work on bacteria and influenza is caused by a virus. However there is a medication (not an antibiotic) called Tamiflu that helps reduce the symptoms and lower the risk of complications. It is best if taken within 48 hours of the beginning of symptoms.
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