News & Politics

Questions and Answers About Swine Flu

With the news that health officials have identified six probable cases of swine flu in Maryland and one in DC, here is information about the disease.

More good information is available on the federal Center for Disease Control Web site.

What is swine flu?

Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 flu virus, is a respiratory disease that is seen in pigs but can infect humans. In the past, transmission (usually through person-to-person contact) was not sustained beyond three people.

What are the symptoms?

The CDC Web site says that symptoms of swine flu are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting. In the past, severe illness (pneumonia and respiratory failure) and deaths have been reported with swine-flu infection in people. Like seasonal flu, swine flu may cause a worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions.

Can you take a test to tell if you have swine flu, or is it diagnosed from the symptoms?

The flu is mostly diagnosed through symptoms. There is a test, but it requires sending the sample to the Center for Disease Control, and that takes at least a few days.

Are people taking drugs in an attempt to avoid getting swine flu?

Pharmacies in our area are seeing prescribing patterns suggesting that some doctors are willing to write prescriptions for flu drugs to be taken preventively, though there is no proof that this preventive approach might help.

Are Tamiflu and Relenza the two main drugs?

Yes, they are the main drugs.  

What dosage do people take?  How much do the drugs cost?

A box of Tamiflu (ten 75-milligram capsules) is about $115. The usual dosage is one pill twice a day for five days. Relenza usually costs a little under $100.

Do local pharmacies have Tamiflu or Relenza?

Tamilfu and Relenza are now almost completely unavailable from the wholesalers that supply local pharmacies, and few pharmacies have any of the drugs in stock. But the federal government says large amounts of the drugs can be made available if needed.

Do people want to have the drugs on hand at home in case a family member seems to be coming down with swine flu?

Yes, lots of people seem to want to have the drugs at hand in case they are needed.

Will most doctors write a prescription for that purpose?

Most doctors won’t prescribe the drugs absent any symptoms out of concern that the drug may then be unavailable to people who really need it.

If you think you have swine-flu symptoms, should you see a doctor to get a prescription or go to a hospital emergency room?

We spoke with a pharmacist who recommended first calling a physician if you observe any symptoms. A hospital emergency room visit can mean a long wait to find out if you actually have the flu.

What about the masks and gloves people are wearing?

Masks are of limited value. It is wise to use one if you are tending to a sick person, but they aren’t considered to be of much use in public areas. However, people are requesting them at pharmacies and supplies are running low. The best preventive measure is washing your hands thoroughly and often.

What can you do to keep from becoming infected?

Like the common flu, swine flu spreads mainly through person-to-person contact, so cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (alcohol-based sanitizers like Purel also work well) and avoid touching your face. If you do feel sick, stay home.