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Swine flu frequently asked questions

The H1N1 influenza pandemic – also known as swine flu – was declared officially over by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 10 August 2010. However, swine flu is still one of the main viruses circulating during the winter. The public can take simple precautions to slow the spread of swine flu and other types of flu. Here are some useful tips that highlight how best to protect yourself and others from infection.

What is swine flu and how is it different from ordinary flu?
What are the symptoms?
How does swine flu spread?
Is there a vaccination I can have?
What can I do to protect myself and others against flu?
Do I need a face mask?
What if I think I have swine flu?
What is a 'flu friend'?

What is swine flu and how is it different from ordinary flu?

Swine flu is a respiratory disease and has some elements of a virus found in pigs. It has been confirmed in a number of countries and it spreads from human to human.

Pandemic flu is different from ordinary flu because it’s a new flu virus that appears in humans and spreads very quickly from person to person worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared swine flu a pandemic – the first since 1968-70 – on 11 June 2009. On 10 August 2010 the pandemic was officially declared over, but the WHO stresses the need for people to continue taking precautions, particularly in the winter.

Pregnant women, people over 65, and people with certain health conditions are particularly at risk. Find out more about high-risk groups on the NHS Choices website.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are very similar to other forms of seasonal flu. Swine flu symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, cough or shortness of breath. Other symptoms can include headache, sore throat, tiredness, aching muscles, chills, sneezing, runny nose or loss of appetite.

How does flu spread?

Flu viruses are made up of tiny particles that can be spread through the droplets that come out of your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. When you cough or sneeze without covering your nose and mouth with a tissue, those droplets can spread and others will be at risk of breathing them in.

If you cough or sneeze into your hand, those droplets and the germs in them are then easily spread from your hand to any hard surfaces that you touch, and they can live on those surfaces for some time. Everyday items such as door handles, computer keyboards, mobile and ordinary phones and the TV remote control are all common surfaces where flu viruses can be found. The germs can live for up to 24 hours.

If other people touch these surfaces and then touch their faces, the germs can enter their systems and they can become infected. That’s how all cold and flu viruses, including the swine flu virus, are passed on from person to person.

Is there a vaccination I can have?

There is a seasonal flu vaccine which includes H1N1. The NHS offers the vaccine free for priority groups. The groups include:

  • people older than six months in the seasonal flu vaccine at-risk groups
  • all pregnant women
  • people who live with those whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer patients or people with HIV and AIDS.

Front-line health and social care workers will also be offered the vaccine. If you believe you are in one of those groups and have not been offered the vaccine, contact your GP.

Find out more about the vaccine on the NHS Choices website.

What can I do to protect myself and others against flu?

The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to follow good hygiene practices. These will help to slow the spread of the swine flu virus and will be the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself and others from infection.

When you cough or sneeze, it is especially important to follow the rules of good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs:
  • Always carry tissues.
  • Use clean tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze.
  • Bin the tissues after one use.
  • Wash your hands with soap and hot water or a sanitiser gel often
  • Clean hard surfaces (like door handles, computer mice and remote controls) frequently.

There’s a simple way to remember this: CATCH IT, BIN IT, KILL IT.

Do I need a face mask?

You may have seen face masks being given out to the public in other countries on the news. However, the available scientific evidence shows that these basic face masks don’t protect people from becoming infected.

The best way to protect yourself and stop the spread of flu viruses is by using and disposing of tissues and washing your hands.

Remember to CATCH IT, BIN IT, KILL IT.

What if I think I have swine flu?

If you live in England:

  • Stay at home.
  • Phone your GP, who will be able to assess you and prescribe treatment if needed. Do not go to the surgery.

If you live in Scotland:

  • Stay at home.
  • Contact your GP or NHS 24 on 08454 24 24 24.

If you live in Wales:

  • Stay at home.
  • Contact your GP.
  • Contact NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47 for further advice.

If you live in Northern Ireland:

  • Stay at home.
  • Contact your GP.
  • Contact the Northern Ireland Swine Flu Helpline on 0800 0514 142 for further advice.

Note: If you belong to a high-risk group it is particularly important you start taking antivirals as soon as possible. High-risk groups include people with long-term conditions, those over 65, children under five and pregnant women.

What is a 'flu friend'?

During the pandemic, Red Cross volunteers across the UK acted as 'flu friends' by delivering medication to those who have been diagnosed with swine flu symptoms - but don't have family or friends on hand to help.

It's always a good idea to look out for your neighbours, friends and family – and that's especially true during the winter.

Ask your family members, friends or neighbours – especially those you think might be a bit vulnerable – if they need a flu friend. That way, should they become ill, at least they'll know there's someone they can count on.

Find more swine flu information on the Directgov website.