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H1N1 Flu

Kathleen Roberts |31, August 2009


H1N1 Flu

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about the H1N1 pandemic that is spreading across the country. You probably have questions and concerns, especially if you are pregnant or if you have small children. What is H1N1? Is it dangerous to you if you're pregnant? What about your unborn baby or children? Is there a vaccine? How can you avoid getting sick to begin with? Read on to learn everything you need to know about H1N1.

What Is H1N1 Flu?

H1N1 was first detected in April of 2009. At that time it was called, somewhat inaccurately, "Swine Flu." This name was due to the lab results that showed the virus to have many genes that were similar to a flu virus affecting North American swine. It also had two genes similar to European and Asian flu viruses that affected swine as well. In addition, it contained genes similar to genes in bird flu and human flu viruses. This combination of genes in one virus was called a quadruple reassortment by scientists.

When news first broke about "Swine Flu," people were afraid. This was a new virus that had never been seen before and no one was sure what to expect. By June 11, 2009, H1N1 was officially at pandemic levels according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with cases too numerous to count.

The Spread of H1N1 Flu

Spread of H1N1 is through the same ways as the standard, seasonal flu. It is spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing or even touching an object with the virus on it and then touching your nose or mouth. The virus can actually live on surfaces for two to eight hours waiting to be transferred to a host, so keeping things clean is very important. It cannot spread through pork.

While the word "pandemic" sounds very scary, one fact that may ease your mind is that most of those who have been infected with H1N1 have recovered without any need for medical intervention. For the average person, using common sense will go a long way toward recovery as well as preventing the spread of this virus. However, if you're pregnant common sense may not be enough.

Unlike seasonal flu, which typically causes death among the elderly and those with specific health issues, H1N1 is causing deaths among younger people; people who should not ordinarily be bothered by the flu. The greatest risk for H1N1 rests with those who are aged 25 and under. High risk individuals include:

  • Those with a compromised immune system
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Pregnant women.

Symptoms of H1N1 Flu

If you are pregnant, you should call your doctor to see if he recommends an antiviral medication to prevent this strain of the flu from attacking you. Most commonly, the antiviral oseltamivir (known as Tamiflu) is prescribed to prevent or treat H1N1 virus in pregnant women, even though there have been no studies conducted to determine the safety of this treatment. Accepting this treatment while pregnant is something you will need to discuss with your doctor. Typical treatment to prevent H1N1 is a 10 day course; typical treatment when you are ill is five days. Treatment may minimize your symptoms and make you feel better.

If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to H1N1, watch for the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea (sometimes)
  • Vomiting (sometimes)

If you experience these symptoms, call your doctor for further instructions. While it is currently unknown how H1N1 can affect your unborn baby, it is possible that contracting this virus can increase your chance of pneumonia and of early labor. This is based on the complications that are common with pregnant women who contract seasonal flu; it is not known if H1N1 can cause the same problems.

H1N1 and Children

Because children are often crowded together in school, they tend to catch illnesses more easily. This holds true for H1N1 as well. And because there is expected to be large numbers of children getting sick, there are also expected to be a large number of children who may die from this virus.

Children under five years old are especially prone to H1N1 with the highest risk being for children under the age of two. Emergency medical treatment is recommended for children exhibiting the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing or rapid breathing
  • Skin that looks blue or gray
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Severe, persistent vomiting
  • Not being able to wake up or interact with others
  • Acting overly irritable; not wanting to be held
  • Flu symptoms that go away and then come back with a fever and a cough that is worse than before

Please note: Children under age 18 with confirmed or suspected H1N1 should not be given any medication containing aspirin (such as Pepto Bismol) due to the risk of Reye syndrome. Acetaminophen or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory should be given instead. Children under four should only be given medications that have been approved by your pediatrician.

If you or your child becomes sick, stay home. Do not go to work or school and avoid contact with others. You or your child should stay at home until 24 hours after any fever is gone, without the aid of fever reducing medication. The exception to this rule is for medical care under your doctor's guidance.

If your child becomes ill with H1N1, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to combat the infection. Recently, Tamiflu was approved for use in children, even those under the age of one year.

The H1N1 Flu Vaccine

There are several manufacturers that are currently working with the U.S. government to create vaccines against H1N1. These vaccines are expected to be available in limited supply by October 2009, with supply increasing over the following six months. Vaccination is expected to be voluntary. According to a recent report from the Center of Disease Control (CDC), the first batch of vaccines will be intended for an estimated 159 million people who are considered high-risk. These high-risk people will be comprised of five groups:

  • Pregnant women
  • People who care for infants under six months old
  • Health care and emergency medical personnel
  • Children and young adult between six months and 24 years old
  • People between the ages of 25 and 64 who have medical conditions that put them at high risk for flu-related complications (conditions listed under The Spread of H1N1 above)

Those who fall into these groups are also advised to get vaccinated against seasonal flu. Because the seasonal flu vaccine is expected to be available before the H1N1 vaccines, high-risk groups are advised to get their vaccine as soon as they can. However, both seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines can be given on the same day once both are available. Both a recommended because the seasonal vaccine will not protect against the H1N1 virus. Each state will have a delivery plan in place by the time the H1N1 vaccine is available and it will be made known at that time.

H1N1 vaccines are being produced in the same way as seasonal flu vaccines are made. Both live and inactive vaccines will be available initially, neither of which will contain adjuvants (substances that enhance immune response). These vaccines will be studied to determine if one or two doses will be needed. Eventually, vaccines containing adjuvants will be introduced as well. It is expected that these vaccines will be for emergency use only.

How to Protect Yourself

With antiviral medications that might help you feel better and vaccines that may work but still need to undergo clinical trials, you likely feel a bit insecure, especially if you are pregnant or have children under five years old. The best way to protect yourself and your children is to take steps to stay healthy.

Many people have chosen to boost their immune system naturally with products such as elderberry syrup, echinacea and other herbs. You may not feel comfortable with those methods, however, there are still many things you can do to keep yourself and your family healthy. Just follow these tips and teach them to your children and you'll greatly reduce your chances of catching H1N1 or any other virus.

  • Wash your hands frequently. The best way is with soap and warm water. Lather your hands--fronts, backs and between the fingers-- for 15 to 20 seconds. Then, rise well and dry. Washing is particularly important after you cough or sneeze.
  • If soap and water are not available, use alcohol wipes or sanitizing, alcohol-based gels. If you use a gel, rub your hands together until the gel is dry. This is a great alternative for public places, work or school.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throw it away after use.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. These are places that germs can enter your body if they get on your hands.
  • Stay away from sick people. The less you expose yourself, the less likely you are to get sick.
  • Eat healthy foods and get plenty of rest. These things will keep your immune system strong so it can fight viral infections

The CDC recommends that now, while you are healthy, you should gather a supply of cold and flu medications, hand sanitizer, tissues and anything else that you might need if you do get sick. If you have the supplies now, you won't have to needlessly expose others to your illness, which will spread it around even more.

Consider adding disposable facemasks to your supply list. The CDC recommends the use of the N95 style for those in high-risk groups. This is typically worn by the sick person if possible, but can also be worn by the caregiver if the sick person is a small child. It will help prevent the spread of H1N1 throughout the household.

You should also be sure to keep foods on hand that you may need if you become ill and cannot leave your home. Include such items as bottled water, prescription medications, ready-to-eat fruits, meats and vegetables, dry cereal, peanut butter, protein or granola bars, canned juices, baby food, pet food and other non-perishable items.

Final Notes

H1N1 is intimidating, especially if you don't know what to expect. By following some simple tips for staying healthy, having a plan if you do get sick and having good communication with your doctor, you can avoid disaster. Remember, most people who get H1N1 recover without the need for medical care. If you are in a high-risk group, be particularly careful to protect yourself and your baby. Above all, if you think you or your baby may have H1N1, call your doctor for advice. While you may not need to go to the hospital, it is best to leave that decision up to your doctor. He has your best interests at heart.

H1N1 Resources & Information

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) - About Facemasks
Flu Pandemic Checklist
What Pregnant Women Should Know
H1N1 in Infants and Children
H1N1 Vaccine
If You Get Sick

Kathleen Roberts is a health and parenting writer who lives in Colorado with her five children. She employs natural methods for staying healthy when ever possible but always recommends consulting a medical professional for serious illness.

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