The Tech Herald

H1N1: What you should know and why panic doesn’t help

by Steve Ragan - Oct 23 2009, 14:30

H1N1, Swine Flu, or just the Flu, essentially they’re the same thing. However, with all the media attention and pundits talking, should you panic? What do you need to do to prevent it, and how can you treat it if infected? The Tech Herald has done some research and here’s what we discovered.

“It started like any other common cold or flu, with a tickle in the back of my throat and that general feeling of coming down with something. Over the next day or so it progressed into fever, chest and head congestion, sneezing and watery eyes, terrible body aches and chills, everything you'd expect from the common flu,” said Jen Anderson, who is a member of The Tech Herald family recently diagnosed with H1N1. Jen does several of our images on the site, as well as other back-end geeky things when needed.

“For the first few days I assumed I had a nasty case of the flu and kept waiting for that day when things would start to take that turn for the better. As the days went on however, things only seemed to keep going downhill. The body aches and chills became almost unbearable, even just lying down was painful and being touched or bumped intolerable. The chest congestion became so bad that breathing was next to impossible unless sitting upright, and even then, the coughing was constant.”

She told us that one of the worst things was just how drained and utterly exhausted she felt. To her, everything felt like it took a monumental effort. It was at this point, after several days of fighting a fever, the aches, breathing issues, and Flu symptoms that were far worse than she’d ever experienced, that she went to see a doctor.

One fact that Jen’s story included, which went hand-in-hand with the information we got from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), WHO (World Health Organization), and several doctors and medical professionals we interviewed, was that her symptoms started out Flu-like, but they didn’t improve. After about 5 days with no sign of any recovery, she visited her doctor.

“The H1N1 test was one of the first things they did when I arrived, and by the time he came in to see me they already had the results. He was very blunt and the first thing he told me when he came in was ‘You have the flu, you tested positive,’” Jen explained.

“In all honesty, I was a bit taken aback…I asked him if they were sure, that it was H1N1, and he confirmed it. I admit, hearing it, I felt a sense of nervousness. I didn't outright panic, I knew that chances were I would be fine, but at the same time, when you hear so much in the media about people dying from something, and your doctor tells you you’ve just tested positive for it, it's hard not to have that initial gut reaction.”

What is H1N1 exactly?

H1N1, commonly called “Swine Flu” in the media and public, is a type of Influenza A virus, one of the common types of Flu that has existed for years. “Swine Flu” dates as far back as the 1970’s. In the 70’s, what we know as H1N1 today, was simply called “Swine Flu”.

H1N1 is unique because it contains genes from Flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs from Europe and Asia, avian (bird) genes and human genes. This is why you started seeing heavy usage of the name “Swine Flu” in the media. It’s also easier to remember.

It is contagious, but according to Clarian Health here in Indianapolis, the CDC is still unsure as to how easily it spreads between humans. However, as mentioned in Jen’s story, H1N1 starts the same way as any other Flu. The common symptoms include fever and chills, sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people will also experience diarrhea and vomiting.

The difference between H1N1 and the normal Flu we’ve all gotten at some point in our lives is that, while the normal Flu will last about a week, H1N1 has been shown to last 10-14 days in some people.

One medical assistant, in passing, offered a tip that made good sense. You know your body better than anyone, and when things get bad, you’ll know when it’s time to be seen by a doctor. The one thing that makes the Flu fatal, not just H1N1 but any Flu, is that it can progress to more serious issues, such as Pneumonia.

The doctors we spoke to said that if you have Flu symptoms that last longer than five days, a fever that will not break no matter what you do, breathing issues, and body pain, you need to be seen by a medical professional. However, they stressed that if things get bad, don’t call your normal doctor for an appointment. Instead, head to the Emergency Room, especially if you have issues breathing.

Vaccines for H1N1

When it comes to vaccination for H1N1, there is some confusion over who needs it. In some of the older generations, if they were previously vaccinated, many wonder if they are immune. In addition, there is confusion over the normal “Flu shot” and the H1N1 vaccine. Where the question here is, isn’t one just as good as the other?

Taking the points out of order, the first thing to remember is that the seasonal “Flu shot” is not the same as the H1N1 vaccine. The doctors we spoke to, as well as information from the CDC, all point to the fact that the seasonal protection does nothing for the strain of Flu known as H1N1.

For those who were vaccinated against “Swine Flu” in 1976, there is no promise of full protection against the 2009 strain. This is because H1N1 and the “Swine Flu” from the 70’s are different. Think of them as members of the same family tree. H1N1 is the angst ridden teenager, while the other is retired and spends its days relaxing with a good book. Both are in the same family, but neither has a good deal in common.

There are two types of vaccines. One is an injection the other is an inhalant. The injection method for vaccination is what we are all familiar with, but the inhalant version of the H1N1 vaccine has caused some issues lately thanks to its extensive media coverage. Both the seasonal vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine are available as a shot or inhalant, however doctors will vary as to which one they will offer.

If you are thinking about using the LAIV (Live Attenuated Intranasal Vaccine), or inhalant vaccine, here are some things to consider. Any healthy person can take it, however if you are currently sick, have chronic health conditions, or a weakened immune system, you shouldn’t take it. This is because the LAIV is an active virus, and has a high probability of making you sick, whereas the injection is not an active virus, and the odds of you getting sick from it are lower.

So who needs the H1N1 vaccine?

While you see this information from time to time, the context can be little distorted. So to be blunt, if you are pregnant, then you will need the H1N1 vaccine. If you live with, or provide care for, a child under the age of six months old – parents, siblings, day-care operators – then you will need the vaccine. Anyone who is 6 months to 24 years of age will need it too. Medical professionals who have direct contact with patients will also need the vaccine. Finally, if you are aged 25 to 64, and have a chronic health disorder or compromised immune system, you could be at risk for Flu related complications.

What exactly does it mean however, when you talk about a chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems? Examples of chronic health disorders include chronic heart failure or any chronic respiratory disorder (COPD, asthma). Compromised immune systems are seen in patients that have radiation therapy, Leukemia, HIV, AIDS, and Multiple Sclerosis.

There is a special note for those who have Diabetes. According to the medical professionals we talked to, if you have uncontrolled Diabetes, you will need the injection form of the H1N1 vaccine, the LAIV or inhalant form of the vaccine is not for you. In any case, you will need to confirm with your doctor if you have Diabetes and fall in to one of the five groups who should be seeking the vaccine. Some doctors will give it to those with Diabetes and others will not, it depends on the doctor’s perspective. Often this choice is made on a patient by patient basis.

However, before you call the doctor and ask for the vaccine, you should be aware that in every case, the medical staff at your local doctor’s office or hospital will take the vaccine as it arrives long before it is offered to the patients. This means you might have to wait before you get your shot. The reason for this is because you wouldn’t want to be treated by someone who could get you sick.

When it comes to the seasonal “Flu shot” almost all of the medical people we spoke to agreed, everyone should get one yearly. In addition, every five years you should get a Pneumonia shot if are aged 55 or older.

Treatment for H1N1

If you contract H1N1, remember that while nasty, this is the same as any other Flu. In addition, this is a virus so there isn’t much your doctor can do for you. However, each doctor has their own advice for patients, so you should seek their treatment advice first and foremost.

With that said, here are some of the basics for treating H1N1 once contracted. The first bit of advice repeated by many professionals is get rest and lots of it. If you work, stay home. If you go to school, stay home. As long as you have a fever, you can spread the virus to others. The rest helps your body deal with the infection, not to mention, you’ll probably not feel up to doing much of anything once this takes hold.

We asked Jen what advice her doctor gave her after he told her she had H1N1.

“He prescribed an inhaler for me to use to help open up my lungs and an anti-inflammatory to help with the aches, and told me that my current regiment of over-the-counter expectorant and decongestant were fine to continue. Beyond that, he basically gave me the same advice that anyone would get for the regular flu, lots of rest, and lots of fluids, with the exception that he stressed greatly that if my breathing were to get any worse or any more labored, I was to call them or seek medical attention immediately.”

So we know the rest is important, what about the fluids you’re to drink so much of? As long as they are clear, most professions stated, you’re fine with drinking as much of them as you can get your hands on. The catch is you should be able to see through them. The list of fluids we heard included, water, chicken broth from a can (avoid salt and sodium), Jell-O, tea, Pedialyte, and Gatorade. Some medical professionals were split on Gatorade. They said it’s ok to drink it, but it has sugar in it, so you don’t want to drink too much. Soda is a definite no-no. If it fizzes you can’t have it.

When it comes to OTC (Over the Counter) solutions, keep it basic. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) was recommended by four out of five doctors. (No we’re serious, most really did mention Tylenol by name.) This will help with fever and body aches. In addition, Ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) well help the same symptoms, as does Naproxen (Aleve). 

The nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, fever, best sleep you ever got with a cold medicine, brand of treatments will work just as well. However, you must follow the label directions and make sure you avoid mixing medicines the CDC says. This means if you want to take NyQuil or even DayQuil, this is fine, at the same time, you shouldn’t add Tylenol on top of that. Don’t double dose. For cough or congestion, Robitussin and Mucinex were mentioned as ways to treat those symptoms.

One thing covered when discussing various OTC remedies, was that you never, under any circumstance, give a child (5-12) or teenager (13-19) aspirin if they have the Flu. This can lead to complications, up to and including a rare condition known as Reye’s syndrome.

When in the house, the CDC says avoid people as much as possible, however that is easier said than done. So the normal advice given out every Flu season would apply here. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often, and get into the habit of keeping bottles anti-bacterial solution handy. After you are better, any surface of the house you touched should be cleaned. For hard surfaces, Lysol will help here. There are also detergents for the bedding and daily clothes.

So should you panic over H1N1?

The panic and sensational coverage over H1N1 has reached Hollywood blockbuster proportions. Hospitals have setup areas to segregate people who might or might not be infected with H1N1. Now, there are medical reasons to do this, priority treatment for example. However, these reasons are rarely explained, so the public panics.

The H1N1 vaccination is in short supply according to some reports. However, considering that H1N1 has not changed much since April, the shortage as it were will not impact most people. Since people under the age of 25 are being hit the hardest, the scope of who should get what vaccines available is important. Remember, unless you have a chronic health disorder or compromised immune system, those of you 25-64 will not need the H1N1 vaccine.

When Jen mentioned that she was nervous after hearing she had H1N1, we asked her about all the news and hype. Considering that she has it, does she think the fear and worry about H1N1 justified?

“Yes and No. I think there has been some over sensationalism of H1N1 leading people to think that diagnosis is in essence, a death sentence. From my experience and understanding, it's not much more fatal or dangerous to most people than the common flu. I do think however that a certain level of concern and coverage of it is justified and that people should be aware of it and educated about it. Although my experience may be worse than others, it also will be less severe than others,” she said.

“In my opinion, anything communicable like this, that can make you this sick or worse, should be covered and taken seriously. People should take precautions and do whatever they can to not only avoid contracting it themselves, but possibly spreading it to others. I regret not seeing a Doctor sooner and finding out, knowing now I could have passed it on…I suppose in the end, if given a choice, I would rather see a little over sensationalism of something if that helps people be more aware and cautious. Although perhaps not the plague some are making it out to be, it is nasty, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.”

At the time this article goes to print, Jen is still fighting H1N1, but slowly getting better. We asked one medical professional what they have seen with regard to the panic and fear over H1N1.

“Someone called in with normal cold symptoms, a temperature just over 99-degrees, and honestly thought they could die. Another caller with a sore throat, runny nose, no temperature or cough, swore that they were positive for H1N1,” said one Medical Assistant we spoke to. She had to remain anonymous because she wasn’t allowed to speak to the media on her own.

When asked about the hype over H1N1, she commented that it is good that people know about it, and thinks that a level of coverage by the press is needed but that “[people] shouldn’t panic”, because “when it comes down to it, H1N1 is a Flu virus. You would treat H1N1 like you would any other Flu. There is no real medical cure, when you have a virus; it has to run its course.”

At the end of the day, panic will help no one. However, all the media hype, the medical opinions from one expert or another, and thoughts from bloggers, reporters, or people on the street, will never amount to the sound advice that comes from your doctor.

“When in doubt, call your doctor and talk to them. They can’t treat you unless they know something is wrong.”

The Tech Herald used resources from the WHO and CDC for some of the information in this report. Other information came from Clarian Health documentation, as well as personal and telephone interviews from Methodist Hospital. While the advice and topics covered in this report are medically sound, the best advice is that you should always talk to your doctor when you have questions or concerns.

More information about H1N1 can be located online by visiting the links below.

CDC:

General Information on H1N1

Vaccination

WHO: Coverage on H1N1

Clarian Health: General Information

 

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