Ask Dr. Besser: Common Swine Flu Questions

Dr. BesserPhoto Courtesy CDC
Dr. Besser

As the novel H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, continues to spread across the country, the public has many questions about how to stay healthy.

Below, ABC News' senior medical editor Dr. Richard Besser tackles some of the most common concerns:

1) How worried should people be about the swine flu?

Besser said that while the public should not panic, people should definitely be aware of the virus and the threat it can pose.

"There are several things that people need to understand," Besser said. "One is that whenever there is a new outbreak, there's uncertainty. How this will unfold is not clear."

Besser added that what people do now to protect themselves -- such as receiving the H1N1 vaccine when it is available and practicing good hand hygiene habits -- will go a long way toward protecting everyone

"Another reason that people need to take action is that what we do now as individuals and as parts of communities will impact how severe this is in our communities and around our country," he said.

2) If you haven't seen many cases of the swine flu in your area, do you have to worry about catching it?

Besser said it's incorrect to assume that because the virus hasn't been widely reported in your area, you don't need to worry about it.

"Flu doesn't hit the whole country at the same time," he said.

The good news is that if your area hasn't been hit yet, you have time to get the vaccine to protect yourself. But Besser warned that you still need to get the vaccine, even if your area has so far been spared, because flu spreads more readily in cool weather.

3) Is it possible to differentiate between swine flu and seasonal flu based on symptoms?

Swine flu and seasonal flu can look and feel the same, Besser said, so telling them apart could be a challenge.

"They may hit groups a little differently," he said, explaining that swine flu has been hitting children harder, while the seasonal flu hits older people harder.

But in terms of the signs and symptoms, often "you can't tell them apart."

Fortunately, in most cases the advice for getting past either of these illnesses is the same -- bed rest, lots of fluids and time.

4) If you already have had the flu, do you need to get the vaccine?

Besser cautioned that those who have already had the flu once in recent months but who did not get tested to determine the strain might do well to get the vaccine anyway when it is available, especially since the strain they experienced may not have been the novel H1N1 strain.

"If you didn't have specific testing [for swine flu], then you really need to get vaccinated," he said. "If you had that test, bring it into your doctor and go over it," he advised. "You may not need the shot."

5) Is the H1N1 flu vaccine safe?

While the safety of the vaccine has been a hot topic lately, Besser said that safety is really not an issue.

"There is a real misconception out there about this vaccine," he said. "Many people feel that it was rushed to market without adequate testing when, in fact, it went through more safety testing than is done each year for the seasonal flu vaccine."

And he said that for young patients in particular, the benefits of the vaccine are important.

"As a general pediatrician, I don't think there's anything that I do that has better evidence for protecting and improving the chances of a child growing up healthy than vaccination," he said.

6) Who should get the H1N1 vaccine as soon as possible?

Certain people who belong to high-risk groups should receive the vaccine first, Besser said.

"For swine flu, groups at greatest risk include health care workers, people under the age of 24, pregnant women, adults or children with any underlying medical conditions that may put them at greater risk, as well as people who have or care for babies younger than 6 months, who are too young to get vaccinated themselves," he said.

Besser also said that those with certain lung conditions are particularly susceptible.

"Anyone who has a chronic lung problem, whether it's emphysema, frequent pneumonia or a condition like cystic fibrosis, those people should get the swine flu vaccine," he said.

7) When will the H1N1 vaccine be available to me?

If you are a member of a high-risk group, you will likely be able to get the H1N1 vaccine soon if you have not already. But for everyone else, it may be weeks yet before it is available.

"It will be mid- to late November before there's enough for everyone who wants it," Besser said.

The good news is that there is enough vaccine on the way to protect everyone.

"There is plenty of vaccine coming," Besser said. "Everyone who wants vaccine will be able to get it. The government has ordered 251 million doses, which is far more than we get for the seasonal flu."

8) Who cannot get the H1N1 vaccine?

While most people can receive either the nasal spray version or the injectable version of the H1N1 vaccine, there is a small group of people who cannot receive either one.

"If your child or you has an allergy to eggs, you cannot get the vaccine -- you cannot get the shot and you cannot get the spray," Besser said.

9) If I think that I have been infected, should I take Tamiflu?

In most cases, even if you think you have been infected with swine flu, Tamiflu should not be necessary, Besser said.

"Swine flu causes a mild infection in most people, and so the good news is that not everyone needs Tamiflu."

But he cautioned that those in high risk groups -- pregnant women, the elderly and children under age 5 -- may have a harder time dealing with a flu infection. Those people, he said, should probably talk to their doctors about possibly getting Tamiflu.

10) What can people do, in addition to getting the H1N1 vaccine, to protect themselves and others?

In addition to vaccinations, hygienic workplace practices are essential components to protecting yourself and others from cold and flu infections.

"Good hand hygiene means washing your hands regularly or using a hand gel and not shaking hands if you have a cold," Besser said. "In terms of respiratory etiquette, cover your mouth with your elbow, shoulder or tissue when you cough or sneeze, those things will be helpful. ... And if you're sick, don't come to work."