Q&A: Swine Flu Myths and Mysteries

There were 20 cases of confirmed swine flu in humans in the United States as of April 26, 2009. (Image credit: USDA)

This is Part 2 of a 4-part LiveScience Special Report on the flu.

News of a new swine flu in humans seemed to spread faster worldwide than the virus itself in recent days, but with that has come an army of people whipping out thermometers and a myriad of questions about face masks and much more. LiveScience clears up some of the misconceptions, based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recent studies, and other experts.

How is this flu transmitted? The flu virus, including this one – a type A/H1N1 flu virus, is most commonly spread in liquid droplets made airborne by coughing or sneezing. This is a highly contagious respiratory illness. For this reason, sick or not, cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing, and wash your hands frequently, especially after using a tissue. Don’t touch your nose or mouth, or rub your eyes. Throw away tissues after use.

Can you get the flu by eating pork? No, the swine flu cannot be spread by eating properly cooked pork, but you can get it from contact with infected pigs.

Is it OK to kiss someone on the cheek or lips? There is mixed advice on this, but most authorities say that kissing and even hugging should be avoided, if you want to avoid getting the flu. Is it safe to shake hands? Again, mixed advice. Frequent hand-washing will take care of uncertainties. Should I wear a face mask? It's a personal decision, but there is definitely evidence that face masks – surgical ones that fit tightly against the skin – are effective at preventing the spread of the flu and other viruses. These masks are not necessarily the same as the dust masks that some people use when cleaning or doing construction work. In May 2007, the CDC issued guidelines saying that surgical masks "should be considered" during a flu pandemic for anyone sick with the flu, anyone entering a crowd, or those living with people with flu symptoms. This wording was a watering-down of a previously considered "face mask should be worn" recommendation due to a lack of evidence at that time about face masks and the flu. You can buy such face masks at drug stores and medical supply stores.

How many people have died so far? Although swine flu has been confirmed, as of Monday morning, in people in five U.S. states (Texas, California, Kansas, New York and Ohio – a total of 20 cases), no one here has died of it and all these cases have been mild. In Mexico, more than 100 people have died from the swine flu, according to Associated Press reports from Mexican officials. No one yet knows why the cases in Mexico are so much more severe. Some of the confirmed numbers fail to add up, possibly due to the lag time in obtaining lab confirmations. There were 20 lab-confirmed cases of swine influenza in humans in the United States, and 18 lab-confirmed cases in Mexico, according to a World Health Organization statement on Sunday. The WHO declared this event a public health emergency of international concern Saturday, but the death rate for swine flu tends to be low, around 1 to 4 percent, the agency says. How do you know if you have swine flu or just some other cold or virus? A doctor can tell, but swine flu, like other cases of influenza, starts suddenly with symptoms such as a high fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, runny nose and body aches. If you develop these symptoms and are concerned, consult your doctor. Do healthy, young adults have anything to worry about? Yes. It’s true that the flu usually is more of a threat to the very young and very old, or people with compromised immune systems. But in this case, swine flu has been affecting and proved problematic for people of all ages. Everyone should take precautions, such as being more vigilant than usual about washing their hands, not touching their eyes, mouth and nose, and covering their mouth when sneezing or coughing. What are the treatments for swine flu? Treatment for swine flu is mostly the same as any other cold or flu – stay home, rest, drink plenty of liquids, avoid drinking alcohol and intake of tobacco, and take pain-killers and over-the-counter aids as needed. Consult your doctor for details. U.S. approved anti-viral drugs include Tamiflu, Relenza, Symmetrel and Flumadine, but only Tamiflu and Relenza are apparently effective against this flu.

Is there a vaccine for swine flu? There is currently no vaccine for the current swine flu in humans. Vaccines typically take months to develop. Should people avoid traveling now? Again this is a personal decision, but it’s true that the more people with whom we have contact, the more germs we encounter, and this increases our odds of getting sick. Many of the swine flu cases outside of Mexico, so far, have occurred among people who recently visited there. However, the United States has not issued any travel warnings or quarantines. Is this worse than SARS was? At the height of the last SARS pandemic (2002-2003), some 774 people died (nearly 10 percent of all who caught the coronavirus that causes it). Most of the cases were in China. There were 8 cases in the United States and no fatalities in this country. Is this worse than bird flu was? Bird flu (an H5N1 virus) has killed millions of birds, and about 250 people in 12 countries, according to the WHO.

Part 3 of this 4-part series will be published Tuesday. It will focus on pandemics and the potential for this new swine flu to become one.

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.