It's all over the news and popping up in cases worldwide: swine flu. But just how much should parents be worried about this newest mutation of influenza that has health organizations and individuals around the world concerned?

“Swine flu” refers to any flu virus endemic in pigs, but the strain behind this year's international outbreak is a mutation which allows animal to human, and human to human, transmission – a serious worry if the virus evolves faster than doctors and scientists can keep up. With many more cases on the way, swine flu is causing widespread concern and uncertainty, as even expert epidemiologists admit there's little knowing whether the outbreak will worsen into a global pandemic, or end up as no worse than the normal flu.

What's the difference between swine flu and regular flu?

Practically speaking, swine flu is not all that different from seasonal flu in symptoms and treatment. “A lot of people are hysterical when they heard the words 'swine flu',” says Wayne Yankus, MD, a community pediatrician in New Jersey. However, he points out that if you remove the somewhat alarming word “swine,” it's still essentially the flu – a term that gets no one particularly panicked, even though each year seasonal influenza kills more than 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000 others in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

However, says Yankus, this virus carries some unique qualities that could be cause for concern down the line. “The scary thing for me as a pediatrician is that we are beginning to see flu mutate at a different time of year than is normal, as well as affecting an age group that is not normally at risk,” namely, teens and adults, as opposed to the normally vulnerable populations of young children and the elderly. This, and the fact that this flu appeared in the springtime, at the normal conclusion of flu season, shares discomfiting similarities with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed tens of millions of mostly healthy young adults.

What does swine flu look like?

Dr. Joe Bresee, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Influenza Division, says that the symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue

Like seasonal flu, swine flu infection can be fatal and it's best to be on the lookout for these and other symptoms in young children. According to the CDC, warning signs that young children in particular need urgent medical attention include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

How can parents protect children from swine flu?

“Similar to seasonal flu,” Bresee says, “swine flu is thought to be spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.” That means that exercising common sense and practicing good hygiene are the best ways to help keep your child safe. Here are three common sense guidelines:

  • Minimize exposure. “If your child is sick, take him out of school and keep him home,” says Yankus, especially if your child shows symptoms of flu or other contagious illnesses. If in doubt, consult with your pediatrician before sending your child off to school.
  • Wash up.“We advise families with children to be fastidious with hand-washing, which is easier said than done,” says Yankus. “If you just simply make a point of washing hands and face morning and night, or showering or bathing every day, and washing hands before meals, you are doing more than most people are doing.” However, he urges parents to remember that “washing your hands implies that you've got a good jet of water, actually use soap, and wash for at least 30 seconds (long enough to sing 'Happy Birthday to Me' twice).”
  • Cover mouths when coughing or sneezing. Using your hands is common practice, but the CDC recommends using a tissue or handkerchief, or your upper sleeve, instead. If your child's achoo does end up in his hands, make sure he washes them thoroughly before he forgets and moves on to other activities.

The bottom line? Although new mutations of the influenza virus are alarming, there isn't a lot of evidence that shows children in the U.S. are currently at high risk. “Parents shouldn't be particularly worried,” says Yankus, noting that in the U.S. cases of swine flu have been relatively mild. “Most everybody so far has gotten better fairly quickly.” For parents, following normal behavior, with extra focus on hygiene, is the best bet: “Wash hands, bathe kids, and if you see flu symptoms such as sore throat, headache, fever, or body aches and pains, go see your doctor.”

April 29, 2009