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What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a type of flu that regularly affects pigs. It's caused by different variations of type A influenza viruses.
Here are key things to know about swine flu:
- It's different from the flu viruses that circulate among people.
- Humans can catch swine flu from pigs, but it's very rare. When people do get infected with swine flu it's usually because they've had close contact with the animals, such as workers on hog farms and children touching pigs at fairs.
- The swine flu common among pigs is not the same as the so-called "swine flu" that caused a pandemic in 2009. That flu came from a virus called H1N1 (now officially known as A/H1N1pdm09), which was actually a combination of pig, bird and human flu viruses. The World Health Organization declared the pandemic over in 2010. The H1N1 virus strains behind that pandemic are now part of annual flu vaccines for humans.
The pig industry routinely deals with swine flu and, just as there are vaccines for flu in humans, pigs can also get vaccinated against swine flu. However, because swine flu viruses vary from season to season, the vaccines aren't always effective (human flu vaccines have the same problem).
Most outbreaks of swine flu happen in the late fall and winter months. Many pigs get sick, but most recover.
Interestingly, pigs can also catch bird flu and human flu. In fact, in 2009, the National Pork Board was concerned about people who worked in the pig industry passing the novel H1N1 flu to pigs – which did happen at least once.
Swine flu symptoms in pigs and people
The CDC lists these signs of swine flu in pigs:
- sudden onset of fever
- coughing (barking)
- discharge from the nose or eyes
- breathing difficulties
- eye redness or inflammation
- going off feed.
In the rare cases when humans have become infected with swine flu, their symptoms have been similar to regular flu. These symptoms include:
- lack of appetite
Some people have also reported runny nose, sore throat, eye irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the CDC.
How do people catch swine flu from pigs?
It's very unusual, but people with direct exposure to pigs – such as children who come into contact with pigs at a county fair, or adults who work in the pig industry – occasionally are infected with the swine flu that North American pigs get. In rare cases, such people have spread the illness to others.
Here's how swine flu can spread to people:
- Through the air. Pigs with swine flu often cough or sneeze. Droplets of the virus can end up in the air or on a person's nose or mouth, and get breathed in.
- Through contaminated objects or dust. Flu virus from pigs can end up on surfaces or in dust. People who touch those surfaces or breath in the dust can then get the flu.
- From person to person.There have been reported cases of people with swine flu spreading it directly to someone else.
The CDC typically records only a handful of human swine influenza virus infections every year. However, data shows spikes in human swine flu cases have occurred, including during the 2011 to 2012 season (when there were more than 300 infections), and during the 2016 to 2017 season (when more than 60 cases were reported).
Can people catch the flu from eating pork?
No. Flu viruses are spread by close contact between pigs and people, people and pigs, and people and people. You won't catch any type of flu from eating pork.
Raw meat of all types may contain bacteria and viruses, but they're killed by heat in the cooking process.
Is swine flu dangerous to people?
Most cases of swine flu in people are mild. However, just as with regular flu, some people who get swine flu become very sick. In some cases, people with swine flu have been hospitalized and even died.
People at high risk for developing a severe illness due to swine flu include:
- Children under 5 years old
- Pregnant women
- People with underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and weakened immune systems.
How to avoid getting swine flu
If you or your children spend time around pigs, it's a good idea to take precautions. To reduce the risk of getting swine flu, the CDC recommends you:
- Avoid close contact with pigs that look or act ill
- Don't take food or drink into pig areas
- Don't take toys or baby items into pig areas
- Wash your hands with soap and water (or use hand sanitizer) before and after coming into contact with pigs
Additionally, if you or your kids are at high risk for flu complications (see above), the CDC recommends avoiding pigs and swine barns at fairs altogether.
Swine flu treatment
Like other types of flu, swine flu in humans can be treated with antiviral drugs. These drugs are: oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir, zanamivir, and baloxavir. Oseltamavir and zanamivir are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children.
However, most people recover from swine flu without needing treatment.
What's the connection between human flu and animal flu viruses?
Influenza viruses change or mutate constantly. That’s one reason scientists have to devise a new vaccine every year for the annual seasonal flu that hits human populations starting around October. The ever-changing flu viruses in circulation have to be analyzed and, about nine months before flu season, flu shot developers make their best guess as to which strains will dominate during the coming season.
Swine flu viruses are no different. They change constantly, and pigs can be infected by avian (bird) influenza and human influenza viruses as well as the swine variety. When flu viruses from other species infect pigs, the viruses can swap genes, creating new viruses that are some mix of swine, human, and bird flu.
If you're interested in the science of influenza viruses, the CDC has detailed information.