Over the past few weeks there has been an increase in flu activity across the country, urging health officials in Alberta and Saskatchewan to declare outbreaks of the H1N1 strain of influenza.

In the 2013-2014 flu season, H1N1 infection resulted in over 15 deaths in Western Canada and two in Toronto, leading many people to ask: "What is H1N1 and how can I protect myself?"

We recently caught up with UHN's Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Susy Hota to get the flu facts.

Dr. Susy Hota
Dr. Susy Hota, an expert in infectious disease, says the best protection against any strain of influenza is the flu shot. (Photo: UHN)

UHNews: What is H1N1?
Dr. Hota: H1N1, commonly referred to as the swine flu, is a strain of influenza that emerged in 2009 and led to a pandemic that year. Since then, it has continued to circulate every year as one of our seasonal flu strains.

UHNews: Are symptoms of H1N1 different from any other influenza strain?
Dr. Hota: H1N1 causes all the same symptoms as other strains of influenza - including cough, fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms. The main difference between H1N1 and other seasonal flu strains is that H1N1 tends to affect younger adults more often and may lead to more severe symptoms. A small proportion of those infected will end up in the intensive care unit because of severe breathing problems associated with H1N1 infection.

UHNews: Are H1N1 cases higher this flu season in Ontario?
Dr. Hota: In North America, we are seeing more cases of influenza caused by H1N1 this year compared with last year. In some areas, such as Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Michigan, Texas and California, there have been reports of large numbers of people getting sick with H1N1, with some of these people being hospitalized in intensive care units.  In Ontario, although H1N1 is the predominant strain of influenza we are seeing, our total number of influenza cases currently are lower than what we faced this time last year.

UHNews: How can I protect myself from H1N1?
Dr. Hota: The H1N1 strain is included in this year's influenza vaccine. Getting vaccinated will help to protect you, your patients and your family members from getting sick.

Follow these tips to avoid getting the flu:

  • Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. 
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve, NOT your hands.
  • If you can, avoid close contact with individuals who have symptoms that are suggestive of the influenza virus.

UHNews: If I got my flu shot last year, do I need to get it again this year? If so, why?
Dr. Hota: Yes. Immunity to influenza decreases over several months after receiving vaccination.  This is one big reason why influenza vaccination is encouraged every year. The other reason is that the strains of influenza circulating change from one year to the next.  This means that last year's vaccine is not always a good match for this year.

UHNews: What should I do if I start showing H1N1 symptoms?
Dr. Hota: If you develop symptoms of flu and are concerned about your health, please consult your family physician for medical advice.

Limiting the spread of influenza depends on each of us monitoring our own health for symptoms of influenza.  If you become sick with flu-like symptoms, please do not come to work.  A couple of days of rest will do you good and will help to keep your colleagues healthy. Also, let the Occupational Health and Safety Department know if you suspect that you have the flu.​

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