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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Responding to Swine Flu

By Valencia Porter, M.D., M.P.H.

The Chopra Center’s Director of Women’s Health

The outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and the United States, with confirmed cases now in 19 other countries, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), and a public health emergency by the U.S. government. While it’s easy to stay glued in front of the TV or Internet, keeping track of every aspect of the unfolding events, getting caught up in fear and hysteria clearly isn’t a healthy response. In the face of a legitimate public health concern, here are a few practical guidelines to help you stay calm and protect yourself and your community.

Get the FACTS

The swine flu is an influenza virus that spreads in the same way as other respiratory viruses such as the common cold – through the transmission of infected respiratory particles. Swine flu is spread from one person to another through coughing or sneezing. It is not transmitted by eating pork or pork products.

Usually swine flu only affects pigs; however, when people are in close contact with pigs (such as those working in the swine industry) disease may be spread to humans.

The symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of regular seasonal influenza and can easily be remembered by the mnemonic FACTS: Fever, Aches, Cough and Chills, Tired, Sudden Onset. Some people with swine flu also report runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Protect Yourself with Good Hygiene
WHO issued the pandemic warning not to create panic, but to make people aware of measures they can take to prevent the spread of the swine flu virus. The more people practice these types of preventive measures, the less impact there will be.

The following good hygiene practices will help reduce transmission of the swine flu virus as well as other airborne illnesses:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • When you do cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue and throw it away in the trash after you use it. If a tissue is not available, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow, not into your hand.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth as germs are spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people. If close contact cannot be avoided, transmission can be minimized by using a disposable medical facemask or an N95 respirator.
  • Some viruses can survive on non-porous surfaces for up to 2 hours, so wipe down high traffic surfaces such as doorknobs, keyboards, and phones. Use soap and water, anti-viral wipes, or a mild bleach solution.
  • At this point the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended that people avoid non-essential travel to Mexico; however, no other travel advisories have been issued as of this writing.

Enhance your Immunity

  • Use natural techniques to boost your immune system. This will increase your overall health and well-being, and will help you to fight the disease if you are exposed to it.
  • Don’t foster feelings of fear and worry by ingesting too much news from the TV and Internet. Fear causes a state of stress in your body that weakens the immune system. Give yourself a break from the media barrage and instead check in periodically to trusted websites such as the CDC, which offers up-to-date information without the sensationalism. (
  • Practice deep abdominal breathing, which brings your physiology back to a state of peace and enhances your immune system. Other practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong can also bring you to a state of relaxation.
  • Continue to nourish yourself with plenty of fluids, nutritious foods, and adequate rest. Vitamins and minerals play key roles in the functioning of the immune system, so make sure to eat a balanced diet.
  • Certain herbs may also help boost the immune system and may have anti-viral properties. The Ayurvedic rejuvenating herbs, including amalaki, ashwagandha, and guduchi, have traditionally been used to support immune function. We have combined these herbs with key nutrients in the Chopra Center immune support supplement Vedamune.
  • Other immune-enhancing herbs that may be helpful include astragalus, pau d’arco, and echinacea. Before you take any supplements, consult with your doctor.

Seek Medical Care
Prevention is our major line of defense, but sometimes we still come down with illness. If you do have flu symptoms, stay home from work or school and limit your contact with others. Contact your health care provider as soon as possible as there are anti-viral medications that can make the illness milder and help you feel better faster when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Homeopathic remedies such as Oscillococcinum may also help to alleviate the symptoms. Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Go to urgent care or the emergency room if you have unusual symptoms such as high fever, difficulty breathing, worsening cough, or persistent vomiting and diarrhea.

Valencia Porter, M.D, MPH. is board certified in Preventive Medicine and is the Chopra Center’s Director of Women’s Health. Read more about her here.