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Swine flu

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By Dr Gillian JenkinsGP and medical writer

Swine flu is now officially the first flu pandemic for 40 years, and it is feared that millions of people will be infected. Dr Gillian Jenkins explains how it can affect young children

Swine flu

What is swine flu as opposed to normal flu?

Swine flu is a respiratory illness caused by the new H1N1 strain of the Influenza type A virus, which contains some elements of a flu virus found in pigs. It is transmitted in the same way as seasonal flu strains that we see each winter, through moisture droplets in the air we breathe, sneeze and cough out. It can also survive on, and, therefore, be transferred from, our skin and the surfaces we have contact with, such as door handles, toys, books, linen, and so on.

How do I know if my child has swine flu?

After an incubation period of two to seven days, the symptoms usually develop rapidly and include a high fever, runny nose, cough, breathing problems, a sore throat, headache, tiredness, aching, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Children, especially infants, are more susceptible to severe flu and its complications. In children, the symptoms may be less specific – an infant may have a sudden fever, runny nose, cough or tummy upset and also be very quiet, listless, sleepy or withdrawn, refusing to feed and becoming dehydrated, or may cry constantly and not settle or sleep. There is no specific way or routine test to tell swine flu from other flu strains, so with the winter flu season starting, you will not know if this is swine flu or seasonal flu, or even other respiratory viral illnesses.

What can I do for my child?

If you suspect that your child has swine flu, ensure that they are getting plenty of fluids. If they do not want to eat, having only fluids for a day or two is fine. You can give them milk, although if they have vomiting or diarrhoea, clear fluids such as water or juice may be best. If your child is hungry, give them plain foods in small portions.

Paracetamol and/or junior ibuprofen both offer fever control and pain relief. Use them regularly, as directed on the packet, to keep your child comfortable.

A light T-shirt and sheet is all they need in bed. If they are too hot, sponge the skin with tepid (not cold) water, and give them cool drinks.

Prevent spread to others by adopting good hand hygiene. Use disposable tissues and isolate the sick child as much as possible.

The National Flu Pandemic Service (0800 151 3100 or online at Pandemicflu offers information and access to antiviral medicine, but if your child is under the age of five, you must contact your GP directly for assessment and advice.

There are currently two antiviral medicines used for swine flu, but only oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is licensed in children under five. This may shorten the length of the illness and the severity of the symptoms, but it is not a cure and can have side-effects. After the publication of research that says antivirals are of ‘small benefit’ for treating children with seasonal flu, and concerns over the risks of side-effects, NHS policy is now to only use antivirals for children where any benefit outweighs the risk of side-effects. So, it is not being routinely offered – you need to discuss this with your doctor who will consider your child’s medical history and the severity of their symptoms.

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