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Swine flu is a type of flu (influenza) that is thought to have started in pigs, but it can be caught by and quickly spread among humans.

Swine flu is a respiratory disease caused by a virus known as a type A influenza virus. It produces symptoms of high temperature, aching muscles and joints that are very similar to the symptoms of seasonal flu that occurs during the winter season.

However, although most cases of swine flu are mild, it has caused serious illness and death. It disproportionately affects young people. Deaths from swine flu among young adults has been more than 30 times higher than deaths amongst the same age group from seasonal flu, and rates of hospitalisation have been particularly high in children under 5 years of age.

Although swine flu is no longer headline news, it nevertheless remains a serious risk to health and it is important not to become complacent.
Flu viruses tend to change constantly and new strains emerge every year. The current swine flu virus falls into this category.

If a flu virus appears that is very different from other flu viruses that exist, most people will have no immunity to it, and so it may spread quickly and become a pandemic. A flu pandemic is more likely to cause more illness and many more deaths than seasonal flu.

Shortly after swine flu was first identified in Mexico in 2009, it quickly spread throughout the world and became recognised as a pandemic.

When similar flu pandemics have occurred previously, in 1918, 1957 and 1968, they were responsible for causing the death of millions of people. Consequently, in an attempt to limit the effects of swine flu, health authorities throughout the world took action to try and limit the spread of the disease.

In the UK, thanks largely to swine flu being milder than many people had feared and measures introduced to contain the spread of the disease, the number of people with swine flu continues to fall, with fewer than 5,000 estimated new cases being reported each week. Nevertheless, swine flu has caused the death of 360 people in the UK and is still considered to be a serious risk to health, particularly to those with other serious illness, pregnant women and children under 5 years of age. (See below)
The swine flu virus is spread in the tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when someone coughs or sneezes. If someone coughs or sneezes and they do not cover their mouth or nose the droplets can be breathed in by anyone nearby.

The swine flu virus can also be spread by touch. If someone coughs or sneezes into their hand, the droplets and the virus within them are easily transferred to surfaces such as door handles, TV remote controls, hand rails, computer keyboards, etcetra. The swine flu virus can survive for several hours on these surfaces, capable of being transferred to anyone who touches them.

The single most effective way to stop or slow the spread of swine flu is to prevent the spread of germs. Hands should be washed regularly with soap and water, the mouth and nose should be covered when coughing or sneezing, tissues should be used instead of handkerchiefs.
The symptoms of swine flu are broadly the same as those of seasonal flu, but may be more severe and cause more serious complications.

The typical symptoms are a high temperature (over 38°C/100.4°F) and two or more of the following symptoms:
  • unusual tiredness
  • headache
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • shortness of breath or cough
  • loss of appetite
  • aching muscles
  • diarrhoea or vomitin
Anyone who has flu-like symptoms, but is otherwise healthy, should stay at home, either in a warm bed or a warm room. This will help rest and speed recovery and, importantly, will reduce the spread of the disease to others.

Medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be taken to lower temperature, ease muscular aches, pains and headaches. Aspirin may also be used, but it must not be given to children under 16 years of age.

Plenty of fluids should be drunk to replace fluids lost by sweating and to help reduce high temperatures.

If these measures do not work, or if the person's symptoms get worse, medical help should be obtained.

People who are at risk of developing complications from swine flu need to start taking antiviral medicines as soon as the disease is confirmed. As a precaution, antiviral medicines may also be given to close contacts of confirmed cases of swine flu.

Those considered to be at risk of developing complications include people with:

  • chronic (long-term) lung disease
  • chronic heart disease
  • chronic kidney disease
  • chronic liver disease
  • chronic neurological disease (neurological disorders include motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease)
  • immunosuppression (whether caused by disease or treatment)
  • diabetes mellitus
Also at risk are:

  • patients who have had drug treatment for asthma in the past three years
  • pregnant women
  • people aged 65 and over
  • children under five
The two antiviral medicines in use are oseltamavir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). The two medicines work in a similar way but Tamiflu is presented as capsules and a suspension, while Relenza comes as an inhaler and is recommended for use in pregnancy.

The antivirals are not a cure for swine flu, but will help to reduce the length of the illness by about one day, relieve some of the symptoms and reduce the potential for serious complications such as pneumonia.

During the height of the swine flu pandemic threat, special arrangements were put in place for those with swine flu to obtain antiviral medicines quickly through the National Pandemic Flu Service (NPFS), a self-care service allowing patients with suspected influenza to be assessed online or by telephone. As the threat of a serious pandemic has retreated, the NPFS has been suspended (from 11 February 2010), and the online and telephone service has been withdrawn. Doctors may continue to prescribe antiviral medicines if considered appropriate.

Swine flu vaccine
It is extremely important that the current low levels of swine flu and the discontinuation of the NPFS do not lead to a sense of complacency about swine flu. There is still considerable uncertainty about how the virus will behave in the future. It is likely that the swine flu virus may be the predominant virus during the next seasonal flu season and that the flu season itself may start earlier. There is also a risk that the virus could change to cause more serious illness.

A vaccination programme to provide protection against swine flu began on 21 October 2009. The vaccination policy is being continued at least until the beginning of the next seasonal flu season.

People who are most likely to be seriously ill if they caught swine flu are encouraged to have the vaccine. These are:

  • Adults and children over 6 months of age who have a long-term health condition, including:
  • Chronic lung, heart, kidney, liver or neurological disease
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • People whose immune system is not working properly
  • All pregnant women
  • People who live with someone whose immune system is not working properly (for example, people with cancer, HIV or AIDS)
  • Healthy children aged between 6 months and 5 years

Health and social care workers who are at an increased risk of catching swine flu or spreading it to patients at risk of serious illness caused by swine flu are also encouraged to have the vaccine.

Healthy people aged over 65 are not considered a priority to receive swine flu vaccine as they appear to have some natural immunity to the swine flu virus.

Babies under six months cannot be vaccinated because the swine flu vaccines do not produce enough of an immune response in them to provide protection.

For further information follow Swine Flu Vaccination link above.
When to consult your pharmacist
If you have flu-like symptoms or if you think you have been in contact with someone who may have swine flu:

  • Stay at home
  • Call the Swine Flu Information Line on 0800 1 513 513 to hear the latest advice
  • If you are still concerned, call your pharmacist, GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647
  • Do not go into your pharmacy, GP surgery, or to a hospital, as you may spread the disease to others

Call your GP directly if:

  • you have a serious existing illness that weakens your immune system, such as cancer
  • you are pregnant
  • you have a sick child under one
  • your condition suddenly gets much worse
  • your condition is still getting worse after seven days (five for a child)
Useful Tips
  • Swine flu is spread by direct contact with someone that has caught it, most often if they were coughing and sneezing close to you
  • People with swine flu are likely to be infectious for one day before and up to seven days after they began to display the symptoms
  • Droplets from a cough or sneeze can also contaminate surfaces, such as a doorknob, drinking glass, or kitchen counter, although these germs are unlikely to survive for more than a few hours
  • Antiviral medicines are available to prevent and treat swine
  • The latest swine flu advice suggests that students should stay home if they have swine flu