Surviving Swine Flu

You're probably going to get swine flu, and there's really no need to freak out. Most people are surviving it just fine. Sure, fear-mongering news reporters love nothing better than a global pandemic to boost their ratings with sensationalist coverage of school shut-downs and hospitalizations, but while swine flu is no picnic, it doesn't look like it's going to wipe out civilization as we know it.

Let's go ahead and take a fatalistic approach to this virus. We're going to get it, and we're probably going to survive it; but those who are in high-risk catgories need to take special precautions. Wash your hands all you want; it's a virus, and it will travel.

We need a level-headed approach to combating this illness, and with a vaccine still not available to the public, it's important to take stock of your health and protect yourself and your loved ones before the flu season really takes off.

Know if you are at risk

You expect the flu to pick off the old and infirm, but this flu is different. You might not be happy to hear that most of the 77 swine-flu related deaths recently studied by the CDC had underlying conditions like asthma or diabetes that complicated their illness (10% of the U.S. population has diabetes; 16.4% has asthma). If you are asthmatic, your condition can be aggravated by respiratory complications associated with the flu, so have your fast-acting bronchial dilator on hand and talk to your doctor about other precautions you might want to take. Diabetics are slower to heal and more prone to infections, so discuss a proactive approach with your doctor before you get sick.

Consider a pneumonia vaccination

The swine flu vaccine itself is days or possibly weeks away, and the biggest risk of the flu isn't really the flu virus itself, but rather the bacterial infections that strike once your immune system has been weakened by the flu. Data from the CDC suggests what most doctors probably could have guessed: up to 29% of people who have died while infected with the swine flu have also had accompanying infections like pneumonia. I didn't even know that you could get a vaccine for pneumonia until recently, but apparently this underused treatment is fairly effective. The vaccine only needs to be given twice in a lifetime, and although it only covers a couple dozen strains of pneumonia (there are more than 80 different types), most infections are caused by the 23 strains of bacteria that are included in the vaccine. Pregnant/nursing women and children under the age of two are not generally vaccinated.

I've been calling around, and the price of a pneumonia vaccine seems to range between $30-55. That's not exactly cheap, but for an asthmatic like me, it's cheaper than a trip to the emergency room (again). Check your local pharmacy or clinic to see if they are offering pneumonia vaccines; many pharmacies are scheduling vaccination clinics that include the flu shot and pneumonia vaccinations at the same time. The vaccine isn't always covered by insurance.

Exercise and eat well

This is obviously something everyone should be doing already, but if today is the first day that you put down the bag of Doritos and take a slow walk around the block, so be it. You don't have to deprive yourself and go crazy with a weight-loss scheme; just add some fresh fruit and veggies (the darker, the better — think berries and kale) to your daily food intake and find ways to keep your blood pumping, even if it means long, leisurely walks around the block. Take deep breaths and try to slowly expand your lung capacity. Don't exhaust yourself, because that can just make you more prone to illness.

Get enough Vitamin D

Many people live with vitamin D deficiency, and it can be difficult to tell that you have one without a blood test. Vitamin D may play an essential role in keeping your immune system, particularly your respiratory system, healthy. There are few ways to get enough vitamin D, but you can take supplements, drink vitamin D-fortified milk (3 glasses a day), or make a point of spending at least 15 minutes a day outside during the sun's peak hours (11AM-1PM).

Get plenty of sleep

The flu hits those who are most vulnerable, and that includes not just the old and sick, but also the physically exhausted. Most people don't get nearly enough sleep on a daily basis, so if it means that you have to skip your favorite TV shows for a few weeks to get some more shut-eye, so be it. Remember, unless you are one of those rare genetic mutants who only needs 6 hours of sleep per night, you should be striving for somewhere around 8.5 hours of quality sleep.

If you get sick...

If you've managed to catch the swine flu, you can still take steps to avoid the worst aspects of the disease. The usual advice still applies: get plenty of rest, stay home if you can, remain hydrated, and allow people to tell you how good chicken soup is for you. For most people, this should be enough.

For those with immuno-suppressive disorders or anyone considered "high-risk," you might want to take an anti-viral medication within the first 24 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. Pneumonias develop when mucus and fluids in the lungs become infected with bacteria, which happens when the mucus is allowed to hang out and fester. To prevent pooling of mucus:

  1. Assuming you don't have any other conditions that would prevent this (like fresh stitches from an appendectomy), cough. Force yourself to cough; this moves the phlegm around in your chest and disrupts bacterial growth.
  2. When not sleeping, try to rest in an upright position.
  3. Try to move around when you are sleeping. Don't just stay flat on your back for many hours at a time.
  4. If you develop a cough that isn't bringing up much phlegm, and you have your doctor's go-ahead, get your hands on a good expectorant that contains Guaifenesin, like Mucinex. Expectorants help to thin the mucus out, so that you can bring it up when you cough. Breaking up this nastiness and coughing it out is crucial to preventing infection.
  5. If you are asthmatic, be vigilant and keep in touch with your doctor as necessary. At the first instance of respiratory distress, get thee to a medical facility.

**I am not a doctor, and nothing in this article should be construed as me giving medical advice. However, most of the tips given here do come from the Center for Disease Control or other reputable sources, so I promise that I am not just making stuff up. Please consult your physician before undertaking any new medical treatments.**

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Guest's picture
Lauren McCormick

...and wash your hands a lot...

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm pretty much taking a fatalistic approach to the swine flu - I will probably come down with it, regardless of how often I wash my hands. I'm just trying to prep myself for what I consider inevitable.

Guest's picture

As a long-time sufferer with various respiratory complaints I have a few nostrums to share:
1) I have a facial steamer which I use to inhale steam to help decongest my lungs. You can also breathe the steam from a hot cup of tea. (or put a towel on your head and breathe the steam from a hot basin of water).
2) You can make a nice decongestant tea by just adding thyme to Chinese 5 spice mixture foound at the grocery store. It has anice and licorice - good for lungs - & it's cheap, altho I really hate the taste myself - it does work! Put in honey, as honey has an antiseptic nature.
3)Boost your immune system - I add Chinese heral mixtures, like Jade Screen to help - plus ginseng...And Wellness vitamins and echinechea and goldenseal....
4) Take oodles of vitamin C.
5) I have also taken Oscocillo by Boiron - it was more for the bird flu - but who knows what this strain will be made of....

Having had pneumonia once in my 20's - I now fortify myself against whatever viruses/germs are out there, and though I get sick - I do think I ward off anything worse!

Guest's picture

hot tea.....I say Hot Tea cures everything that chicken soup doesn't.

Guest's picture

the swine flu that is. Yesterday was worse than today (which is why I'm at my computer, I sure wasn't yesterday). But I still feel like crap. Feels like regular flu to me, nothing special, maybe a worse sore throat.

Guest's picture

Check out this story newsweek ran on how hand washing is not effective in preventing the flu (other things yes, so don't stop washing your hands).

Andrea Karim's picture

That's why I'm not posting on how to avoid it. I figure that it's inevitable. It's just good to prepare to fight it off, especially if you have health problems that make you more vulnerable.

Guest's picture

Thank you for compiling that information. I hear news spout the bad news about the flu and always think, "I better prepare for that", and this is a great checklist!

Guest's picture

As someone who works in Public Health I just want to thank you for this article which is probably the most sane and balanced I have read in the public domain on this topic.
As you say the mass hysteria promoted by the media is unhelpful, but your article contains great advice for the average person.

Financial Samurai's picture

This is the only time when riding the bus to and from work sucks. There's inevitably a sick person hacking away.


Financial Samurai
"Slicing Through Money's Mysteries"

Andrea Karim's picture

There's no bus route to my workplace, so I drive, but the sound of my coworkers hacking up a lung does sort of put me on edge. I can only imagine that compounded on a crowded city bus...

Guest's picture

As more people come down with swine flu and regular flu, there may be some shortages of your normal OTC meds, like Nyquil, Tylenol, Mucinex, etc. If you don't have some on hand, you may want to stock a 'normal' amount for what appears to be the inevitable. At the very least, it will save an emergency trip to the store when you don't feel so well already.

Guest's picture

The author is right about the pneumonia vaccine, though it is probably only cost-effective for older individuals, and those with risk factors (a quick Google will fill you in on those).

However, by some measures, pregnant women may actually be more at risk from swine flu than others. They are actually a priority in the coming optional vaccination campaign.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's a good point, Jake. I certainly hope that people who are in need of the vaccine choose to get it - however, I have heard so many people questioning the safety of the H1N1 vaccine, and many people saying that they didn't plan on getting it for whatever reason, so I didn't want to start a massive anti- versus pro-vaccine debate. 

The pneumococcal vaccine has a long history of effective and safe use, so I figured I ought to concentrate on that instead for now. 


Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

I had the swine flu a few months ago, and I am lucky in that it wasn't any worse than a standard flu (which is never fun to begin with).

I am noticing that a more commonly promoted practice when sneezing and coughing is not to cover your mouth with your hands any more....since your hands are one of the best ways to spread contagens. Instead, consider coughing/sneezing into the crook of your arm.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Great tip on the pneumonia vaccine. I had no idea, but it's a great medical hack. Thanks for posting about it.

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