What to Expect When You’re Expecting Swine Flu

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Isn't swine flu kind of adorable? Look at it. Photo: Horacio Salinas

The vaccine for H1N1 came out this week, and New York's health system is braced for pandemic. But with so many people opting out, many more New Yorkers are bound to come down with the illness I've had for the past week. This is my story, and what to expect if — more like when — you get the swine flu, too.

First, let's get this out of the way: The swine flu is not exotic at this point. It's been running rampant through the Southeast for months now. Celebrities even have it. So, for healthy adults, it's really not that big of a deal. It's similar to the regular flu, just much more contagious (and with one big tweak). Nevertheless, it is not to be confused with a nasty cold or allergies run rampant. Here's how you'll know the difference.

1. It starts in the lymph nodes, then hits you in the knees.
I'd had swollen glands in my neck for a couple of days, but passed them off as change-of-season allergies. But Friday night, in the midst of seeing a play, my knees started aching terribly. By intermission I was by the bar, guzzling wine in denial and starting to tremble with chills. I had to lean against a wall just to stand up straight. By the time I crawled into bed around midnight, I had a fever of 101.6. Come morning, it was up to 104, and the pain had spread from my knees to a whole-body ache. I was thrashing about, teeth chattering, in a full-on malarial stupor, feeling around in the bedside drawer for stray Advil and crying for my mommy. Also, my throat was starting to feel weird …

2. Unless you already have Tamiflu lying around, don't even bother.
Once I'd gotten some Advil down and the fever had (slightly) lessened, I called my mom, a pediatric ICU nurse in Tallahassee. Having had H1N1 herself already, she gave the usual tips (fluids, alternating Advil and Tylenol to keep the fever down) and some surprising advice: "Unless you get a rash, are having breathing problems, or start vomiting to the point where you can't keep anything down, don't go to the emergency room." But I wanted Tamiflu! Tamiflu was my right as an American! "Tamiflu will only take about half a day off of your sickness and you'll spend as much time or more waiting in the ER, giving what you have to everyone else there," she said, reasonably. "Besides, Tamiflu has its own side effects that will just make you feel worse." So I decided to abandon the Tamiflu quest.

3. Make your own chart and keep your fever in line.
The first and worst symptom of this flu was a high fever that needed to be dominated. So Saturday morning, I took out a notebook and made a chart, imaginatively titling it "Lindsay's Flu Chart." Despite sleeping for the better part of three days, I managed to note, in scribbles and scratches, the time of every dose of Advil, Tylenol, Aleve, etc., along with my temperature. OTC painkillers such as Advil and Tylenol claim to work for four to six hours, but as fever reducers, this is total bullshit. (And Aleve does nothing. Nothing.) I needed a dose of something every couple of hours just to keep my fever below 101, so I set my alarm for every two hours to pop a pill and scribble on my sad little chart. But it worked — once this system was in place, my fever didn't get out of control again. But the self-congratulation didn’t last.

4. Oops! Actually, the fever isn't the worst part.
The worst of it came in slowly on Saturday afternoon: an excruciating, horrifying, unimaginably painful sore throat, the likes of which you haven't experienced unless you've had strep as an adult. But, unlike strep, which quickly improves within the first few hours of antibiotics, this sore throat is caused by a virus, and it will last for a week. It will make you ask yourself questions like, "If I knew I would have this sore throat for the rest of my life, would I choose to go on living?" And the answer will be, "No." It's every kind of sore throat (scratchy, itchy, stinging, burning, dry, sharp) all rolled into one, and while a few remedies can briefly make a tiny dent in it (gargling with salt water, hot tea, numbing spray, Ben & Jerry's Cinnamon Bun ice cream), nothing can make it bearable. Nothing. So have all those things around the house, but don't expect them to help. Sorry.

Other symptoms were similar to a cold: stuffy nose, a mild post-nasal (not lung) cough, stinging eyes, complete lack of appetite, etc. But I barely noticed them because the throat was the Thing.

5. Your friends will abandon you.
Well, sort of. Your friends will show great selfish curiosity about how you contracted swine flu (as if you can possibly pinpoint it — "I dunno, the subway? It's a fucking pandemic!"), and will each make the exact same joke about bringing over soup, ringing the buzzer, and then running away before you open the door. You will tolerate them, because it's actually true that you can't see anybody and you don't want to risk giving anyone what you have anyway. TV is your new friend.

6. Don't bother getting tested. Just get painkillers.
When I walked into my doctor's office on Monday and announced to the receptionist that I had swine flu, she was very cross with me, gesturing to the other people in the waiting room — I could make them sick, you know — but I could not be made to feel like a pariah. I was covered in Purell, I had a tissue at the ready in case I coughed, and I was seeing the goddamned doctor. My doctor came out immediately and took me to a back room, making a little joke about quarantine. "You know, unless they get the vaccine, everyone's going to get it, so don't feel too bad," she said. I asked whether she was going to test me for swine flu and she explained that because the test is expensive and unreliable, and because H1N1 is now so prevalent, health-care professionals are no longer testing for it and are just assuming any case of the flu at this time is H1N1.

But my main concern at this point was that I had strep, because I was pretty sure I had some sort of Knife-in-Throat disease. The doctor took one look at my throat and said "This doesn't look like strep — but oh dear, you're not allergic to Vicodin, are you?" Apparently my throat was swollen enough to merit Vicodin! We’re saved! The doctor took a strep culture just in case, and wrote me prescriptions for an antibiotic (in case I would later need it), and, bless her heart, prescribed me ten big, beautiful Vicodin pills to get me through the rest of my flu odyssey.

So that's it: You're probably going to get swine flu, so have supplies lying around (a swine flu "go bag," as it were). And Tamiflu is so three months ago — today's discriminating swine-flu patient demands Vicodin. Oh, and because you will forget what being hungry ever felt like, you will lose at least five pounds by the end of your pig-flu adventure. So there's that.

Related: The 0.5 Pandemic [NYM]