Swine Flu: Who's Most at Risk?

By Michael W. Smith, MD

I've been receiving quite a few questions about whether certain people should be more concerned about catching swine flu. The short answer is "yes."

As with the garden-variety flu, there are some people who are more likely to be severely affected by the swine flu. These people are more likely to get very ill, require hospitalization, and more likely to die.

People at higher risk have one thing in common. Their bodies are more susceptible to serious complications of the flu, such as pneumonia or even bloodstream infection.That said, most of these people recover just fine from the flu with no serious illness. But it's good for them to take steps to be extra careful in preventing the flu.

So, who's most at risk?

  1. Children aged 6 months up to their 19th birthday (but the younger the child the higher the risk)
  2. Pregnant women
  3. People 50 years of age and older
  4. People of any age with certain medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease (asthma, COPD, emphysema), diabetes or those with weakened immune systems.

So what should these people do to protect themselves?

If there were a swine flu vaccine available, then they'd definitely want to get one. Unfortunately, there isn't one. The CDC says they may have one available by September. Time will tell if it's still necessary by then. Fingers crossed our aggressive efforts will take care of the problem beforehand.

We all need to be very vigilant about warding off the swine flu virus. Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands! Guess you get my drift. It truly is the most effective flu prevention strategy.

And what about antiviral medications? If anyone from these high-risk groups is exposed to someone with swine flu symptoms, they should call their doctor to see if they should take antiviral drugs, such as Relenza or Tamiflu. These medications can help prevent you from getting the flu, if taken early enough after exposure. Or, if you do get symptoms, they can help lessen the severity of the illness and help you feel better faster. They may also help prevent serious flu complications. The key is to start them early -- within two days of symptoms.

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