If youve been watching the evening news lately, then you know that the lead story for a couple of days has been the epidemic of swine flu thats hit Mexico and is moving into the US.
Although a case of the flu isnt that big a deal for most healthy adults, this disease tends to hit children and the elderly the hardest with over 150 dead in Mexico alone. As a result, many countries are issuing travel restrictions as well as more closely screening people crossing their borders.
With all the fear and confusion creating numerous conflicting stories in the media, its difficult to know which information to trust. However, there are a couple of simple, common-sense things that you can do to protect yourself and your family from the flu.
First, understand what youre fighting. What is the flu, or more specifically, the swine flu? Swine flu is the name given to the most recent outbreak of the flu virus. Its a type of flu thats not been seen before. It contains parts of some of the strains of flu that weve dealt with in the past including American Swine and avian, or bird flu.
This strain of flu virus is spread like any other flu virus: primarily from airborne transmission but also from surface transmission as well. In other words, the virus spreads from infected people sneezing or coughing which pumps the virus into the air where healthy people breath it in. It spreads by surface transmission when infected people wipe their runny nose, for example, and then touch a door knob, phone, or other surface. If a healthy person touches the contaminated surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, they become infected also.
The symptoms are those of the common flu: headache, fever, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, and muscle aches. In the vast majority of cases, most people recover without any problems. However, special care should be taken for those that are most at risk for complications infants, people with existing respiratory problems, and the elderly.
Second, cleanliness is your best defense. Since the virus spreads through surface transmission, your best defense is to frequently clean common areas at home as well as at the office with a sanitizing cleanser. You should also carry a bunch of pre-moistened wipes or a tube of hand sanitizer and wash your hands often. Make sure your kids get into the habit of frequently washing their hands with soap and/or a hand sanitizer also. This one suggestion is probably the most effective thing you can to do prevent your family from coming down with the flu.
So what about airborne transmission? Is a surgical mask effective? Well, yes and no. The flu is a virus, something so small that a surgical mask isnt going to stop it. However, in most cases, the virus is spread by someone coughing or sneezing so the virus isnt going to be coming out in single units. Theyre going to be in clumps clinging to the droplets of water or mucous thats part of every sneeze. In these cases, the clumps may be large enough to be trapped by the surgical mask.
Youll find conflicting reports about the effectiveness of surgical masks. Theyre probably most effective in preventing infected people from sneezing on you, something thats likely to happen in crowded situations like a subway or sporting event.
Third, keep yourself and your family healthy. This means making sure that you and your family is eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of fluids, getting moderate exercise, and getting plenty of sleep. You want to make sure that your immune system is in peak condition and ready to fight off any attacks. I dont advocate taking mega-doses of vitamin C or anything else but a good multivitamin wouldnt hurt.
Fourth, if all else fails. If all else fails and you or a member of your family gets sick, make them as comfortable as you can. Theres no real cure for the flu but there are all sorts of over-the-counter medications for the symptoms. If you or your family member is part of the high risk group (infants, elderly, or existing respiratory problems), then keep a very close watch and get medical attention if their condition appears to worsen.
If youre the one thats sick, stay home, drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Most people recover within 5-7 days. If it lasts longer than this, see your doctor.
Finally, this flu is really no more serious (or any less serious) than the other strains of flu weve experienced so the precautions are pretty much the same. The best advice is to maximize your chances of warding off the disease by keeping common surfaces clean, washing your hands often, and by practicing good health habits (eating right, exercise, staying hydrated, getting plenty of sleep).