H1N1 influenza is a contagious respiratory disease that causes symptoms similar to those of the seasonal influenza in people. The name “swine flu” was initially used to describe this type of influenza because laboratory tests showed that this strain of flu virus was made up of genes that were very similar to the ones that caused influenza among pigs (swine). Just like humans, pigs can get the flu. However, we now know that the H1N1 flu virus is made up of genes from several different flu viruses that normally circulate among pigs, birds, and humans.
H1N1 flu is caused by a virus. The most common subtype, or strain, is influenza type A H1N1, and this subtype has also caused infection in people. The letters H and N in the subtype name stand for proteins found on the surface of the virus, which are used to distinguish between different subtypes.
The symptoms of HIN1 flu virus are very similar to those of seasonal human influenza. People with H1N1 flu virus may experience:
• Body aches
• Loss of appetite
• Sore throat
Some people with H1N1 flu virus have also reported vomiting and diarrhea. The severity of symptoms can vary from mild to severe and sometimes require hospitalization. In some cases, severe complications such as pneumonia and respiratory failure can cause death. Like the seasonal flu, H1N1 flu may worsen existing chronic medical conditions.
Treatment and prevention
There is a vaccine against H1N1 flu that is available to all Canadians who want to be vaccinated. Talk to your doctor or local public health office about how to get the H1N1 vaccine. There are also medications available to help in the prevention and treatment of H1N1 flu. These are called antiviral medications. There are 2 classes available: M2 inhibitors (e.g., amantadine*) and neuraminidase inhibitors (e.g., oseltamivir, zanamivir).
For people who are sick, help yourself get better and prevent the spread of the virus by doing the following:
• Stay at home if you are sick. Do not go to work or school.
• Stay at least 1 metre away from other people.
• Rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Throw your used tissue in the garbage. If you do not have tissue available, cover with your sleeve or hands. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Make sure to wash your hands with soap for at least 15 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water.
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