Several weeks ago I became ill with a mysterious “bug.” My illness began suddenly with symptoms that included a headache, low-grade fever, chills and a nasty cough. I assumed, as most college students would, that 18 or 20 hours of sleep would help and I would return to class the next day. However, that technique did not work and I was faced with the possibility that I might have contracted the dreaded H1N1 virus — “swine flu.”
Unfortunately, the illness progressed to nausea and vomiting, a higher fever, a worsening cough and congestion, body aches and total exhaustion. As sick as I felt, I still wanted to know if this was, in fact, the H1N1 virus.
Concerned that I might become the next statistic of the H1N1 pandemic, I visited an urgent care center near campus, convinced that I would learn if this was H1N1 or seasonal flu. Wearing a face mask and quarantined within the waiting room, it occurred to me that perhaps I should not have waited so long to seek medical attention.
Two hours later, I left the office equipped with the diagnosis that I had “influenza.” H1N1? The seasonal flu? Well, the doctor didn’t test for either, so I will never know which virus was the culprit.
When I questioned the doctor about my flu status, he said the office stopped testing for specific flu viruses because 98 to 99 percent of influenza cases are H1N1. I was released with a prescription for a strong cough medicine and an anti-nausea drug with the advice that if I was not improving within the next three days, I should seek further treatment at the emergency room.
Now recovered from my flu ordeal, one question remains in my congestion-free head: What is the difference between H1N1 and seasonal influenza viruses?
While seasonal influenza typically strikes an older population group (65 years and older), H1N1 is contracted easily by children, young adults, pregnant women and those with medical issues that weaken their immune systems.
What worries health officials the most is that the virus is claiming the lives of the young and the healthy. The last time influenza targeted the young was during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Purdue University conducted a study that predicted 63 percent of the U.S. population will be infected with the H1N1 virus.
One common misconception that has been cleared up is that H1N1, also known as “swine flu,” is not passed through the consumption of pork. In fact, the virus is categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a new virus that is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes. Scientists call this a ‘quadruple reassortant virus.'”
Symptomatically, the H1N1 virus and the seasonal flu are nearly identical.
“The symptoms of seasonal influenza and the new H1N1 virus are extremely similar, making the two hard to differentiate,” said Jose Rodriguez, director of communication for Columbus Public Health. “The only relevant difference between the two viruses is that H1N1 causes more gastrointestinal problems in some people.”
Both illnesses include an assortment of symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea.
Precise testing to determine if a case is H1N1 requires early diagnosis, and doctors say the process is often superfluous because treatment is, in most cases, the same.
In order to diagnose H1N1, the patient must be tested early in the illness via a respiratory specimen, which is sent to a laboratory for testing.
Usually, H1N1 patients recover before they learn of their results.
“Some people will be carrying the virus and show no symptoms. Other people will be sick for one to two weeks,” Rodriguez said. “There are some young adults that have been hit pretty hard. It can be a very serious illness. However, for the majority, the virus will present itself as the typical flu.”
The H1N1 vaccine is currently available to OSU students, faculty and staff.
“Remember the four key factors of H1N1 safety. Stay at home if you are sick, visit the OSU Student Medical Center or vaccination center for an H1N1 shot and flu shot, wash your hands often, and cover your cough,” Rodriguez said.
To learn more about the H1N1 pandemic, visit columbuspandemicflu.org