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August 25, 2009

What About Swine Flu?

What is swine flu?

Novel H1N1 is a new influenza virus causing illness in people.  Early testing found genes in this virus that were similar to flu viruses found in pigs, which led to the name "swine flu".  We now know that it actually has genes like those in flu viruses found in pigs, birds, and humans.

This new virus is found in the United States and it is contagious.  There have been 55 people hospitalized with confirmed novel H1N1 in Colorado in the last four months, one in Weld county and none in Larimer county.  It spreads in the same ways as seasonal influenza - through coughing, sneezing, and touching.  It does not spread by preparing or eating pork, or through drinking water.

What are the signs and symptoms?

The symptoms of novel H1N1 flu virus include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.  Some people also have had diarrhea and vomiting.  Severe illness and death has occurred, although most people have recovered without needing treatment.  Diagnosis requires a lab test.

Who is most at risk?

About 36,000 people die from seasonal flu-related complications in the US each year and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized.  Of those hospitalized, 10% are children younger than 5 years old.  Over 90% of deaths and about 60% of hospitalization occur in people over 65.

About 70 percent of people who have been hospitalized with the novel H1N1 virus are members of high risk groups for seasonal influenza.  This includes pregnant women, those with suppressed immune systems, and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and kidney disease.  In contrast to seasonal influenza, however, novel H1N1 seems to predominantly affect people ages 5-29. 

When should you seek medical care?

Children should get urgent medical attention if they:

  • have fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • have bluish or gray skin color
  • are not drinking enough fluid
  • are not waking up or not interacting
  • have severe or persistent vomiting
  • are so irritable that the they don't want to be held
  • have flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and a worse cough
  • have fever with a rash
  • have fever and then have a seizure or sudden mental or behavioral change.

Adults should seek urgent medical attention if they:

  • have trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • have pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • have sudden dizziness or confusion
  • have severe or persistent vomiting
  • have flu-like symptoms that improve, but then come back with worsening fever or cough.

How can you keep from catching this virus?

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.  Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds, especially after you cough or sneeze.  Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.  (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)

What does conventional medicine have to offer?

Your MD or DO may prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) for treatment and/or prevention. These are antiviral drugs, which are prescription medicines that fight against the flu by keeping the viruses from reproducing in your body.

Clinical trials of a vaccine for novel H1N1 are underway.  Production and distribution may happen as soon as September 2009.  It is not yet clear which version of the vaccine will be used, or what else may be in the vaccine.  So far, getting this vaccine will be voluntaryImportant to note:  just as with the seasonal flu vaccine, the novel H1N1 vaccine is grown on chicken eggs, so those with egg allergy should talk with their doctor about whether it is safe for them.

Once a vaccine is available, priority will be given to immunizing pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months, health care and emergency medical services personnel, people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old, and people ages 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for novel H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.  

What does naturopathic medicine have to  offer?

Your ND, first and foremost, will work with you before you are ill to optimize your diet and lifestyle (things like stress management, exercise, and quitting smoking) so that you have a strong immune system.  That way, if you do catch the flu your body will be better able to fight it.

If your naturopathic doctor practices classical homeopathy, you might also receive a homeopathic remedy, either before the fact or when you are ill, or both.  Taking a remedy to prevent an illness is called homeoprophylaxis and can be quite useful in an epidemic because local homeopathic practitioners communicate with each other about the remedy or remedies which seem to best fit the symptoms of the patients they've been seeing (called the genus epidemicus).

Homeopathic remedies have historically been shown to work very well during epidemics of influenza and other infectious diseases, surpassing conventional treatment in many cases.  For an enlightening article about this topic, please read "Swine Flu and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 - the Similarities and What History Can Teach Us," by Dr. Molly Punzo, M.D.

Naturopathic doctors are also highly trained in the use of nutritional and herbal supplements and can recommend those which may help you fight the flu, support your lungs and immune system, or ease symptoms if you get sick.  Vitamins A and D and herbs like echinacea, oregon grape, and elderberry are just a few of your ND's "tools".

The Bottom Line

Maintain good hygiene practices like using tissues and washing your hands often.  See your naturopathic doctor about ways to strengthen your body and increase your resistance.  Consider whether the vaccine, when it is available, is right for you.  If you get sick, call your naturopathic doctor for help with easing symptoms and getting well.  If you get very sick, seek urgent medical care.  And don't panic!  Remember, most people who have gotten this flu have recovered without needing treatment.  

For more information about naturopathic medicine, see my website, the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Doctors website, or the American Association of Naturopathic Physician's website.

For more information about homeopathy and swine flu, see the National Center for Homeopathy's website.

For more information about the novel H1N1 virus, the status of the disease in the US, and vaccination, see the CDC's page.