Should You Be Afraid of the Big Bad Swine Flu?

You can still get a flu shot, there's plenty to go around. See how happy he is? You won't regret it.

You can still get a flu shot, there’s plenty to go around. See how happy he is? You won’t regret it.

If you’ve paid any attention to Chicago news lately, then you’ve heard reports that the H1N1 “swine flu” virus is on the move, causing an uptick in patients at local emergency rooms. “But wait,” you probably said, “Didn’t swine flu cause a pandemic a few years ago? Shouldn’t I be terrified?”

Back in 2009 when the H1N1 flu virus was first detected it did cause a worldwide pandemic, but in the fall of 2010 the World Health Organization announced that it had transitioned to a “post-pandemic” period. The H1N1 strain is still circulating as a seasonal virus and can still make you very sick, but the overall threat of widespread outbreak is greatly diminished.

Emily Landon, MD, medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Control program at the University of Chicago Medicine, said this year’s H1N1 seems to be affecting younger people up to the age of 50, consistent with how it behaved in 2009. “It makes you pretty sick. It’s not a death sentence, and it’s not going to land you in the hospital for certain,” she said. “But if you have an underlying medical condition it might, and it certainly is going to land you in bed for a good week.”

But if you got a flu shot like we’ve been telling you for months, you have less to worry about: The standard trivalent flu vaccine that most people get each year protects against H1N1 along with two other strains, H3N2 and influenza B. Different strains circulate through the human population and compete with each other from year to year, and depending on interactions with other bugs, environmental factors and plain old luck, one or the other tends to win out. So far it looks like H1N1 is in the lead this year.

The catch though, according to Landon, is that the vaccine is only 60 to 70 percent effective. If you do come down with a high fever, chills and body aches, you should still call your doctor.

So yes, this is the same swine flu you heard about before, and yes, it can make you sick. But should you be scared? No more than any other year, unless you didn’t get a flu shot.

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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