Important Information about Swine Flu

Q. Do I need to wash clothing, jewelry and other personal items? What about household surfaces?

A. It’s always a good idea to keep surfaces like telephones, doorknobs and computer keyboards wiped clean, says APIC’s Rosenbaum. But are you prepared to clean all the money in your wallet and spray down every drawer pull in the office? “We can’t sanitize everything in the world,” says Rosenbaum. That’s why hand cleaning is the key strategy. Take special care to wash around jewelry worn on the hands, she says.

The CDC does suggest special hygiene precautions for households in which a swine flu patient is convalescing.

Q. If I have flu symptoms, when should I go to the doctor?

A. Though U.S. cases of swine flu have been described as “mild,” that’s a relative term, says Louise Dembry, M.D., director of hospital epidemiology at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Like some cases of seasonal flu, she says, the illness is no bout of the sniffles, but tends to come on strong with sudden chills and aches, sore throat and coughing. “You know, you kind of feel like you’ve been hit by a truck,” she says. Symptoms like that, especially when coupled with recent travel to Mexico or known exposure to the swine flu, definitely warrant a call to the doctor. If you’re short of breath, have a very high fever, show signs of dehydration like dizziness—no matter what the cause—get seen promptly.

Q. Is there a test for swine flu my doctor can give me?

A. Yes. Your doctor may conduct various tests to identify influenza generally or rule out other infections. There’s only one that can identify the novel swine flu strain specifically. Newly developed by the CDC, the test kit is being delivered to authorized state laboratories. Your doctor takes a swab from your nose or throat and sends it to the lab for evaluation. Unfortunately, labs swamped with samples may be unable to turn them around quickly.

For patients who seem highly likely to have the swine flu—say, someone with flulike symptoms and recent travel to Mexico—doctors may begin treating with recommended antiviral medicines right away, says High of Wake Forest. The antiviral drugs need to be started within 48 hours of symptom onset to be fully effective. “It’s important to figure out specifically what you have,” says High.

Q. Are antiviral medicines safe for people 50 and older? What about people with heart problems and other chronic conditions?

A. Generally speaking, yes. The two medicines approved for use against the swine flu, Tamiflu and Relenza, are quite safe and carry little risk for drug interactions, says High. The most common side effect is mild gastrointestinal upset.

However, the difference in the drugs’ dosage form—Tamiflu is a pill; Relenza, an inhalant—does affect some older people. Especially for those with dementia, using the inhaler can be tricky because you have to time your breath, then hold it in. Two studies found that Relenza was not effective in preventing flu in nursing home populations, and the CDC does not recommend its use there. People with chronic lung disease like asthma also should contact their doctor before taking Relenza.