Q: What’s the deal with swine flu? Is there any way I can change my diet to prevent getting it?
A: Now that flu season is here, this viral infection of the respiratory tract is not to be taken lightly. Despite the tight control health professionals have over many infectious diseases, the flu—or influenza—is still one of the top ten causes of death in the US.1 Swine flu is a particular type of flu—influenza A subtype H1N1, to be exact—that took us all by surprise earlier this year with its unexpected virulence and rapid spread.
The recent swine flu outbreak began in Mexico in March, followed by cases in Texas in April; the virus quickly spread to additional states and then to other countries, especially those in the Southern Hemisphere that hit the winter flu season during our summer months.2 By June, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared the start of a swine flu pandemic (an epidemic throughout the world).3 As of October about 440,000 people worldwide have gotten sick from the virus and more than 5,700 have died worldwide. 4
As its name suggests, swine flu originated with sick pigs. Cases of swine flu were reported in humans as early as 1918 and have in fact occurred throughout the twentieth century, but they were limited in number and tended to involve direct contact with an infected pig.5 In contrast, the virus causing today’s swine flu pandemic is “entirely new,” says Dr. Chan,6 and has been spread by human-to-human contact; that is, most people who get sick probably haven’t been anywhere near a sick pig.7
Swine flu spreads the same way that seasonal flu spreads—by coming in contact with the respiratory secretions (that is, coughs or sneezes) of people infected with the virus, including surfaces that contain these secretions. If exposed to the virus, you’ll typically develop symptoms one to four days later. The tricky part, however, is that you’re thought to be contagious from one day before symptoms develop—before you even know you’re sick.8 Swine flu symptoms include typical flu symptoms—fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, aches and headaches, chills, fatigue—although some people also experience diarrhea and vomiting.9 And similar to seasonal flu, the people at greatest risk for serious illness are the elderly and the very young, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes and asthma and those with compromised immune systems.10
Your best bet for preventing swine flu and any other flu is following the simple advice your mom always told you: wash your hands often, especially before preparing or eating food. This way, if you’ve come into contact with germs, you’ll get rid of them before they have a chance to get into your body. Use soap and water (or alcohol-based hand cleaner) and rub your hands for at least fifteen seconds—about the length of time it takes to sing one round of “Happy Birthday.” If you do get the flu, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends staying home until you’re symptom-free for twenty-four hours so as not to spread the infection to more people.11
In terms of nutrition, it’s true that what you eat affects your health, but there are no surefire foods or liquids that will guarantee immunity from the flu. That said, here are five ways to empower your body so you can fight off the flu quickly or prevent infection in the first place.
1. Drink water. Dietitian Janet Seiber explains that your mucous membranes (the lining of your nose, ears, lips, et cetera) are one of your first defenses against infection. When dry winter air causes cracking of the skin, it’s easier for germs to make their way into one’s body. Prevent this by drinking enough water daily during peak flu months. How much is enough? Divide your weight in half for the number of ounces of water you should be drinking. (Multiply your weight in pounds by two-thirds if you exercise regularly.)12
2. Include nuts and seeds in your diet. In addition to the healthy fats they contain, nuts, seeds and some oils (sunflower, for example) are good sources of vitamin E. Preliminary findings show vitamin E helped decrease the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections in elderly individuals and also helped clear up the flu in rats quickly.13 Choose unsalted nuts and seeds to cut down on sodium—and watch portion sizes! A small handful goes a long way.
3. Try probiotics. These are “good” bacteria found in foods like some yogurts and fermented milk products that confer multiple health benefits, including prevention of respiratory infections like the flu and colds.14
4. Exercise. Moderate exercise boosts immunity and protects against respiratory infections,15 so make sure to stay active. Exercise is also a natural stress reliever, which indirectly improves your health as well.16 Aim for at least thirty minutes of moderate physical activity each day.17
5. Eat well. Poor diets increase the risk of catching the flu,18 so include a variety of healthy foods in your diet, especially fruits and vegetables. Think of them as your natural “supplements”; they’re rich in so many health-promoting compounds that scientists have yet to discover all their benefits. It’s not a bad idea to also take a general multivitamin/mineral supplement just to ensure you’re meeting your nutrient needs on a daily basis. Choose one that meets about 100 percent of the daily values of most nutrients. (Multivitamins don’t usually have enough calcium and vitamin D, so you’ll probably need a separate pill for these important nutrients—or just drink more milk!)
There are also antiviral medications, which are recommended for hospitalized patients or for those at higher risk of complications.19 And, of course, the flu vaccine may be an option for you, but make sure to check with your health care provider first.
There’s really no reason to face flu season unprepared. If all else fails, listen to your mom and put on a jacket before you catch cold!
1. Melonie Heron, Donna L. Hoyert et al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2006,” National Vital Statistics Reports 57, no. 14 (2009), http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr57/nvsr57_14.pdf (accessed July 13, 2009).
2. The Star Online. “CDC Says Swine Flu Has Peaked in Mexico.” http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2009/6/5/apworld/20090605094118&sec=apworld (accessed July 13, 2009).
3. World Health Organization. “World Now at the Start of 2009 Influenza Pandemic.” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2009/h1n1_pandemic_phase6_20090611/en/index.html (accessed July 12, 2009).
4. World Health Organization. “Pandemic (H1N1) 2009—Update 72.” http://www.who.int/csr/don/2009_10_30/en/index.html (accessed November 2, 2009).
5. Kendall P. Myers, Gregory C. Gray et al., “Cases of Swine Influenza in Humans: A Review of the Literature,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 44 (2007): 1084.
6. World Health Organization. “World Now at the Start of 2009 Influenza Pandemic.”
7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Questions and Answers: Novel H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You,” http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm (accessed July 14, 2009).
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Guidance on Specimen Collection, Processing, and Testing For Patients with Suspected Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Virus Infection,” http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/specimencollection.htm (accessed July 12, 2009).
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What to Do If You Get Flu-Like Symptoms,” http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/ sick.htm (accessed July 13, 2009).
11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Questions and Answers: Novel H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You.”
12. “Five Ways Nutrition Can Prevent Cold & Flu (And Treat Them!),” http://www.utmedicalcenter.org/news/5+Ways+Nutrition+Can+Prevent+Cold+&+Flu+(And+Treat+Them!)/2006.html (accessed July 14, 2009).
13. Dayong Wu and Simin Nikbin Meydani, “Age-Associated Changes in Immune and Inflammatory Responses: Impact of Vitamin E Intervention,” Journal of Leukocyte Biology 84 (2008): 900-914.
14. Jürgen Schrezenmeir and Michael de Vrese, “Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics,” Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology 111 (2008): 1-66.
15. David C. Nieman, “Current Perspective on Exercise Immunology,” Current Sports Medicine Reports 2 (2003): 239-242.
16. Terri D’Arrigo, “Grant Yourself Immunity. 5 Ways to Keep Healthy This Cold and Flu Season,” Diabetes Forecast 61 (2008): 52-55. http://forecast.diabetes.org/magazine/features/grant-yourself-immunity (accessed July 14, 2009).
17. “Current Perspective on Exercise Immunology.”
18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Guidance for Clinicians on the Prevention and Treatment of Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Influenza Virus Infection in Infants and Young Children,” http://www.cdc.gov/ h1n1flu/childrentreatment.htm (accessed July 14, 2009).
19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Guidance on Antiviral Recommendations for Patients with Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Virus Infection and Their Close Contacts,” http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/recommendations.htm (accessed July 14, 2009).
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.