Emergencies preparedness, response

What can I do?

14 January 2010

What can I do to protect myself from catching pandemic (H1N1) 2009?

The main route of transmission of the pandemic influenza virus seems to be similar to seasonal influenza, via droplets that are expelled by speaking, sneezing or coughing.

You can prevent getting infected by taking the following measures:

  • keeping your distance from people who show symptoms of influenza-like illness, such as coughing and sneezing (trying to maintain a distance of about 1 metre if possible);
  • clean hands thoroughly with soap and water, or cleanse them with an alcohol-based hand rub on a regular basis (especially if touching surfaces that are potentially contaminated);
  • avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes as much as possible;
  • reduce the time spent in crowded settings if possible;
  • improve airflow in your living space by opening windows;
  • practise good health habits (including adequate sleep, eating nutritious food, and keeping physically active); and
  • getting yourself (or family members age 6 months and older) vaccinated against the pandemic influenza, if possible.
What about using a mask? What does WHO recommend?

If you are not sick you do not have to wear a mask.

If you are caring for a sick person, you can wear a mask when you are in close contact with the ill person and dispose of it immediately after contact, and cleanse your hands thoroughly afterwards.

If you are sick and must travel or be around others, cover your mouth and nose.

Using a mask correctly in all situations is essential. Incorrect use actually increases the chance of spreading infection.

How do I know if I have pandemic influenza?

Today, since the H1N1 pandemic virus is now the dominant influenza virus circulating worldwide, most cases of influenza-like illness are likely pandemic influenza.

Typical symptoms to watch for include fever, cough, headache, body aches, sore throat and runny nose.

WHO advises health care providers to treat people with influenza-like illness based on their symptoms and the progress of their illness, and not to wait for laboratory confirmation of pandemic influenza. The pandemic H1N1 virus has already spread worldwide.

Regarding laboratory testing of cases, public health authorities and WHO partners continue to do selective testing of samples from patients with influenza-like illness to characterize outbreaks, monitor the virus and identify disease trends.

What should I do if I think I have the illness?

If you feel unwell, have a fever, cough or sore throat:

  • stay at home and keep away from work, school or crowds;
  • rest and take plenty of fluids;
  • cover your coughs and sneezes. If using tissues, make sure you dispose of them carefully. Clean your hands immediately after with soap and water or cleanse them with an alcohol-based hand rub;
  • if you do not have a tissue close by when you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth as much as possible with the crook of your elbow;
  • use a mask to help you contain the spread of droplets when you are around others, but be sure to do so correctly;
  • inform family and friends about your illness and try to avoid contact with other people;
  • If possible, contact a health professional before traveling to a health facility to discuss whether a medical examination is necessary.
Should I take an antiviral drug now just in case I catch the new virus?

In general, WHO does not recommend the use of antiviral drugs for prevention of pandemic influenza. Antiviral drugs should be taken if your health care provider advises you to do so.

In some instances national health authorities may provide antiviral drugs in advance to individuals at particular risk, or in certain public health situations.

These drugs are generally available by prescription only, though some countries have made special temporary arrangements during the pandemic to ensure that antiviral drugs can be made available quickly.

Caution should be exercised when buying antiviral drugs over the Internet.

What about breastfeeding? Should I stop if I am ill?

No, not unless your health care provider advises it. Studies on other influenza infections show that breastfeeding is most likely protective for babies - it passes on helpful maternal immunities and lowers the risk of respiratory disease. Breastfeeding provides the best overall nutrition for babies and increases their defense factors to fight illness.

When should someone seek medical care?

A person should seek medical care if they experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or if a fever continues more than three days. For parents with a young child who is ill, seek medical care if a child has fast or labored breathing, continuing fever or convulsions (seizures).

Supportive care at home - resting, drinking plenty of fluids and using a pain reliever to reduce aches - is adequate for recovery in most cases. (A non-aspirin pain reliever should be used by children and young adults because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.)

Should I go to work if I have the flu but am feeling OK?

No, you should stay home and away from work through the duration of your symptoms. This is a precaution that can protect your work colleagues and others.

Can I travel?

If you are feeling unwell or have symptoms of influenza, you should delay travel. If you have any doubts about your health, you should check with your health care provider.

(updated from 11 June 2009 version)