Flu Facts

What is this "new" flu?
Flu Virus

To understand the new flu, you need to understand flu in general. There are three types of flu virus – A, B, and C. Flu viruses are round, and they have special spikes on the outside. One type of spike is called hemagglutinin – “H” for short. The other is called neuraminidase – “N” for short. Influenza A viruses have 15 types of H spikes, numbered H1 to H15. They also have 9 types of N spikes, numbered N1 to N9. Flu viruses are named by the types of H and N spikes they have – H1N1 for instance.

The H & N spikes help the flu virus “dock” with animal cells. Some types of flu dock with human respiratory tract cells. These include H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2. Many different types of flu can dock with bird cells. Pigs are different. Human types of flu, bird types of flu, and pig types can all “dock” with pig cells. Because of this, pigs can sometimes get more than one type of flu at the very same time. When this happens, the genetic material can mix together and a new type of flu is born. Although the new H1N1 flu was called swine flu to begin with, it actually has genetic material from humans, pigs, and birds.

What is an epidemic?

An epidemic is any disease that affects more people than expected.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is an epidemic that occurs on multiple continents.   There were 3 influenza pandemics during the 20th century

  • the Spanish flu that occurred toward the end of World War I
  • the Asian flu of the late 1950s
  • the Hong Kong flu of the late 1960s

During the Spanish flu pandemic, 20 to 40 percent of everyone alive at the time caught the flu. Worldwide, more than 50 million people died. People often died very quickly – sometimes on the same day that they became ill. Other times, people died later. Many of these later deaths appear to have been caused by bacterial pneumonia. 20-to 50-year olds were the people most likely to become ill, and they were also those most likely to die.

Asian flu was first identified in the Far East during the winter of 1957. It arrived in the US in the fall, after school began. Although school children, young adults, and pregnant women were most likely to become ill, the elderly were most likely to die. There were about 70,000 deaths associated with the Asian flu in the US. Most years, about 40,000 people in the US die from the flu or from illnesses related to flu.

Hong Kong flu was detected in 1968. Most of the 34,000 deaths associated with this flu occurred in the elderly.

What is avian flu?

Although there are many types of avian (bird) flu, the one most important to humans (H5N1) was first noticed in 1997. Normally, humans don’t get influenza directly from birds. So scientists were surprised when people in Hong Kong caught H5N1 influenza from birds. 6 of the 18 people diagnosed with this type of flu died. 1.5 million chickens in Hong Kong were killed to stop the outbreak. So far, more than 380 people have been infected worldwide. Over 60% of the people have died. Only a few people have caught this virus from other people.

Can I get avian (bird) flu from eating chicken?

No, you cannot get bird flu from eating chicken that you bought at the store or in a restaurant.

Can I get swine flu from eating pork?

No, you cannot get swine flu from eating pork.

How is flu spread?
Family Flu Information

There are two main ways that seasonal and new (H1N1) flu can be spread: through droplets and through touching.

When you have the flu, tiny drops with flu virus are in your coughs, sneezes, and the air you breathe out. These tiny drops are called droplets. Although these droplets carry live flu virus, they usually fall to the ground within 6 feet. That’s why people who are within 6 feet of you can be exposed to the flu virus. That’s also why people who are farther away are less likely to get ill.

Because you can’t hold your breath until you are better, everything around you gets covered with droplets full of flu virus. Your pillow cases, your sheets, your covers, the table next to the bed, your towel, the phone, and of course….your hands! Other people who touch these things can get the flu virus on their hands. If they touch their nose, eyes, or mouth before they wash their hands, they may catch the flu.

What are the symptoms of flu?
Family Flu Information

Almost everyone with the flu has fever. Most people also have a cough, a sore throat, or both. Other common symptoms are a runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and lack of energy. Some people with the new (H1N1) flu have vomiting and diarrhea.

Isn’t the flu just like a bad cold?

Not really. Both a cold and the flu can cause fever, cough, and sore throat. This sometimes makes it hard to tell the flu from a cold. However flu is usually a much more severe illness. Some of the differences between a cold and the flu are listed in the following table.

  • Caused by Flu A or Flu B
  • A severe headache is common
  • Allover “achiness” is common
  • Severe weakness is common
  • Cough may be severe
  • Can sometimes result in viral pneumonia
  • Can lead to bacterial pneumonia and death
  • Annual vaccination is recommended for prevention
  • Caused by many rhinoviruses & other types of viruses
  • Headaches are not usually severe
  • May be a little achy
  • Feel tired
  • Can lead to ear and sinus infections
  • No vaccine available

Does everyone with the flu need to see the doctor?
Family Flu Information

Not really.  Healthy people with seasonal flu or the new (H1N1) flu usually recover without seeing a doctor.  However certain groups of people should definitely check in with their doctor if they seem to be getting the flu. These high risk groups include pregnant women, children under 5 years of age, residents of long-term care facilities, and people with:

  • Heart failure
  • Asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Blood disorders
  • HIV infection or AIDS
  • Cancer
  • Organ transplants
  • Long-term steroid use
  • Aspirin therapy (in children)
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Neuromuscular diseases

If not everyone has to see a doctor with the flu, how do I know when I should go to the doctor?
See a doctor right away if your child...

  • Has fast breathing
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has bluish or gray skin
  • Has vomiting that doesn´t stop
  • Is not drinking enough
  • Is not waking up
  • Does not respond
  • Does not want to be held
  • Has flu that starts to get better but then the
    • fever comes back
    • cough gets worse
See a doctor right away if you have...

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble thinking
  • Vomiting that doesn´t stop
  • Flu that starts to get better but then your
    • fever comes back
    • cough gets worse

Does everyone with the flu need to take an antiviral medicine?

Not really. Healthy people with seasonal flu or the new (H1N1) flu usually recover without taking antiviral medicine. However people with high risk conditions should talk to their doctor about taking antiviral medicine if they seem to be getting the flu. Four medicines can be used to treat influenza. Two of these – Symmetrel and Flumadine – have been available for many years in the US. These two medicines only work against Influenza A. Tamiflu and Relenza are newer. They are effective against both influenza A and B. They are often used to treat high risk people who catch seasonal or the new flu (H1N1). They can also be used to keep people from getting the flu after they have been exposed. All of the antiviral medicines must be started within a day or two of symptoms or exposure. The sooner, the better!


  • comes in an inhaler
  • used to treat people 7years of age and older
  • used to prevent flu in people 5 years of age and older


  • comes as a pill or a liquid
  • used to treat people 1 year of age and older
  • used to prevent flu in people 1 year of age and older

Make sure and tell the doctor you are seeing about all prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal medicines you take. Also tell the doctor about your medical history, especially if you have asthma, chronic lung disease, or kidney disease. Tell the doctor if you are pregnant or nursing. All medicines have side effects. Tamiflu and Relenza are no different. Tamiflu often causes some nausea and vomiting. Relenza can cause allergic reactions including trouble breathing and rash; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; cough; and ear, nose, and throat infections.

Checking for fever

Many parents try and detect fever by feeling their baby’s forehead or body. Most studies suggest that this method

  • finds fever in 4 of 5 babies who actually do have a fever
  • misses fever in 1 out of 5 babies who actually do have a fever

Use this method if you live in a country where thermometers are hard to get. If you live in the US, there is no reason to go without a thermometer in your house. You can buy a digital one for less than $10.


Influenza can live on your hands for more than an hour.

  • Handwashing with soap and water is the best way to get rid of virus
  • Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also a good way to get rid of virus


In a household setting, plain surgical masks work as well as the more expensive N95 respirators. A sick person wearing a mask breathes and coughs out less virus than a sick person not wearing a mask. Well people who are caring for someone with the flu are much less likely to catch the flu if they use a mask every time they are around the sick person.


A few recent studies suggest that getting adequate sleep reduces your chance of getting colds and influenza. It may also improve the way your body responds to vaccine.

How serious is the flu?

Every year, about 60 million Americans get the “common cold” and 100 million get seasonal flu. Although the cold can lead to ear or sinus infections, influenza often leads to pneumoniae – particularly in the elderly. Taken together, influenza and pneumonia cause more than 60,000 deaths and are the 7th leading cause of death in the US. Most (85% - 90%) deaths from seasonal flu and pneumonia occur among people who are 65 and older. People with chronic heart or lung disease or diabetes are especially at risk. The new flu does not appear to be more contagious than seasonal flu. However it is more likely than seasonal flu to lead to hospitalization in young people. For instance, 21 of 30 people hospitalized in California were under the age of 40.